House Democrats Propose New Transportation Bill and Carbon Tax

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Democrats in the state house of representatives have announced an extensive 16 year, $26.8 billion transportation package. The bill mainly provides increased funding for roadway maintenance, where costs have steadily increased over time, and for the replacement of ineffective fish culverts, which a federal order says must be completed by 2030.

The main funding source for these projects is an increase of the gas tax by 18 cents per gallon. This would make Washington’s overall rate 85.4 cents per gallon, the highest in the country. And for the first time, the tax would be indexed to the consumer price index to prevent a gradual decline in revenue over time. This is projected to provide $16.7 billion in revenue, covering nearly all of the road-related spending in the bill. 

The remainder of the spending in the bill, which includes ferry electrification and a broad array mass transit and green energy projects and grants, is mainly covered by a fee of $15 per ton of carbon released into the atmosphere. Different carbon tax proposals have failed a number of times over the past decade, including two separate ballot initiatives in 2016 and 2018, despite support from Governor Jay Inslee and many Democrats in the legislature. However, Representative Vandana Slatter (D-Bellevue), a member of the transportation committee, believes this effort can be more successful.

“We had 90 listening sessions with people across Washington … We reached out to stakeholder communities who had not actually even been previously engaged in transportation policy.… There were two [revenue streams] that the majority seemed to coalesce around.… One was gas tax, and the other was a carbon fee,” Slatter told The Watchdog.

Including the fee in a specific spending package has also made it an easier sell. “We have not really had success in passing economy-wide carbon policy.… Essentially what has happened since then is that we’ve done sector specific approaches to carbon.… Very sector specific approaches have passed in different legislation,” explained Slatter. One consistent stumbling block of stand-alone carbon tax proposals has been how to spend the new revenue. The 2016 ballot measure spent it lowering Washington’s regressive sales tax, while the 2018 initiative allocated the money to other green projects. In both cases the choice of revenue allocation drove some people to vote against it who were not opposed to the tax itself. In talking to constituents, Slatter said she learned “they wanted transparency, and they wanted a clear connection to transportation investments. … It is a transportation package and we wanted to make sure we could address where the dollars would go.”

According to Slatter, “The package is unique in that it raises revenue without new bonding. … Typically when we have done packages in the past we apply a bond vote to it which basically creates a debt service. … This is basically a pay as you go type idea.” Because the carbon fee covers the spending in the bill, it actually makes it easier for it to pass the legislature, as it requires only a simple majority in the state house and senate. Bills that involve the state going into debt need a 60% majority instead. Republicans like House Transportation Committee member Andrew Barkis (Olympia) believe now is the wrong time to raise taxes for anything nonessential, as “things have just continued to get worse economically as a result of COVID,” he told the Seattle Times. Although Democrats have steadily gained seats over the last few elections, they don’t pass this threshold in either house on their own.

Nonetheless, the current form of the bill is set to receive opposition from a number of Democrats as well. In the Senate, Transportation committee chair Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) has previously proposed a $16 billion bill without most of the non-roadway spending of the house package. Rather than greening and otherwise expanding mass transit, his bill aims to reduce traffic by adding exit lanes on I-405 and replacing the Highway 2 trestle between Lake Stevens and Everett, and the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. Mark Mullet (Issaquah), another senate Democrat, is also eager to reduce congestion on freeways, even through a supermajority debt-raising bill.

For Slatter though, the environmental and mass-transit spending in the bill has been too long in coming to wait any longer. “My hope and our hope is that by providing resources to address these long overdue investments, help for frontline communities, carbon reduction to fight climate change, that we’re providing a foundation for a future that is more inclusive, and that it gives us a transportation system that truly works for everybody.”