Washington Democrats have dueling transportation funding bills pending in the upper and lower houses that would raise or protect transportation revenue.

On Wednesday, Senator Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes) filed a bill that would allow local jurisdictions to continue charging some car tab fees for local transportation investments. Representative Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) filed a separate bill last week that would increase the gas tax through 2029 for statewide transportation investments. Senator Joe Nguyen (D-Seattle) also has filed a bill for a wide array of new local transportation funding options. The three bills would achieve very different things.

Senator Lovelett’s legislation would allow transportation benefit districts to continue levying yearly vehicle registration fees if Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 (I-976) is ultimately ruled constitutional. (I-976 is designed to remove councilmanic and voter-approved car registration fees in transportation benefit districts.) Senate Bill 6677 would allow legislators of transportation benefit districts to propose annual vehicle registration fees up to $100, which is largely consistent with existing law. The main drawback of the bill is that it would require voters to first approve the fees. Current law allows councilmanic approval of fees up to $50, meaning a city council or county council could approve the transportation benefit district fee. That provision may be trying to ensure that the fees cannot be invalidated if Section 2 of Eyman’s initiative stands.

The fallback bill is a good start to preserve local options transportation funding. The state has paused many walking, biking, and transit projects in the fallout of I-976 and further cuts may be coming. The appetite for state legislators to resolve those problems this year seems increasingly unlikely.

Separately, Representative Fey has filed House Bill 2913, which proposes annual gas tax increases through 2029. This July, the gas tax would increase by seven-tenths of a cent followed by annual one-cent increases every July thereafter through 2029. Proceeds from the revenue would go to dealing with removal of fish barriers (i.e., culverts) because the state is under court order to do so for thousands of locations. The fish barriers were installed as part of substantard engineering practices in constructing state roads.

Senator Nguyen has a bill that would allow several new local taxing options for transportation investments. Senate Bill 6652 would allow local jurisdictions to impose the following taxes:

  • Cities and town could enact a tax up to 2% on electrical energy, natural gas, steam gas, and telephone services;
  • Transportation benefit districts could impose a sales tax of up to 0.4% on goods councilmanically; and
  • Cities could impose an excise tax of up to 5% of the rate of the statewide fuel tax.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Monday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Additionally, the Senate Transportation Committee took up a hearing on a bill by Senator Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) this week that would both allow Sound Transit to continue its motor vehicle excise tax and reduce it if I-976 prevails—a measure than Sound Transit taxing district voters rejected last year. Since it would amend a ballot initiative, the bill would require a third-thirds majority vote and seems very unlikely to garner such support. Senator Liias says that he is trying to protect Sound Transit 3 projects that voters approved in 2016 while honoring the desire of some constituents for lower car registration fees. Sound Transit said last week that the bill as drafted does not meet the agency’s board directives and could negatively impact projects.

“This bill does not meet that request of the Board in that it lacks offsets for the projected $1.024 billion reduction in revenue, which would have an approximately $2.911 billion impact through 2041 after costs of increased borrowing are factored in,” said Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesperson on legislative matters.

Senator Liias presented an alternative version of Senate Bill 6606 this week to the Senate Transportation Committee that would allow Sound Transit to use property from the Washington State Department of Transportation virtually for free until 2042. That “offset” approach is not likely to garner enough savings to make up for the costs embedded in his bill though, which means he will need to develop real revenue solutions that keep Sound Transit whole in order to honor the Sound Transit board’s stipulations. The fact that no revenue was proposed though should be concerning after state Democrats expended immense energy over the past three years in adjusting the motor vehicle excise tax valuation schedule. Some of those efforts did actually include real pay fors, but apparently no new ideas have come forward yet this time.

Another proposed change to Senator Liias’ bill is allowing owners of cars to pay their car registration fees with Go to Go! accounts and in quarterly or monthly installments. That could take a bit of the pain of paying fees away by budgeting for them on a more regular basis rather than a single annual hit.

While many of these bills bring forward good ideas, the short remainder of the legislative session may end up working against them, with many procedural hurdles still to clear. If not for passage of I-976, we may have seen a clearer path to improving transportation in the state.

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