Democrats in the Washington State House are proposing to pay for transportation improvements partly by raising the gas tax by 18 cents. (Sound Publishing file photo)

House Democrats lay out massive $26B transportation package funded by gas tax hike

An 18-cent gas tax increase and a fee on carbon emissions would fund new roads and more.

Washington State House Democrats on Jan. 19 unveiled an ambitious 16-year, $25.8 billion package of transportation improvements statewide paid for with an 18-cent hike in the gas tax and a new fee on carbon emissions.

Democratic Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma said the proposal is “much more substantial than any in state history” because money is needed to cover the cost of major projects, such as replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River in Vancouver and removing state-owned culverts that are blocking fish passage, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fey, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, also said that nearly half the money raised would go to maintaining and preserving local roads and state highways and new capital projects that lawmakers will determine as the legislation moves along.

An estimated $3.5 billion would be earmarked for culverts. And, Fey said, there will be a focus on equity by targeting spending toward disadvantaged communities while working to bolster the number of contracts issued to minority and women-owned businesses.

“This is a high-water mark. It says this is the direction House Democrats want to go,” Fey said in an interview.

As outlined Jan. 19, $17.6 billion would come largely from the gas tax increase — to be imposed over the next two years and indexed for inflation going forward — and $8.2 billion would come from the carbon fee. That fee would start at $15 per metric ton of emissions, rising to $20 in the next biennium and $25 in the 2025-27 budget cycle. Diesel fuel taxes will rise 21 cents per gallon under the plan.

Hiking the fuel tax up front will enable the state to finance the investments without issuing bonds, Fey said.

“We are really committed to moving a transportation package and getting it to the governor’s desk for signing,” said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “I think this moves the ball down the field well.”

A different though familiar approach is expected to emerge in the Senate as early as next week.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, Democrat of Lake Stevens and chairman of the chamber’s transportation committee, said he’ll soon roll out a plan similar to the 15-year, $17 billion package he’s pushed the past two sessions.

This plan, which he calls “Forward Washington,” raises money from a gas tax hike, plus either a flat fee on carbon emissions or a cap-and-invest system. This proposal has garnered little legislative traction in the past and no support from the governor.

In the 2020 session, 32 House Democrats told Hobbs and Fey that they viewed passage of a clean fuel standard as a precondition to the passage of any transportation revenue package.

House Democrats passed bills establishing a low carbon fuel standard in each of the past two session but Hobbs bottled them up in his committee. House Democrats are working quickly to send the bill to the Senate again this session.

The fuel standard and road package “belong together,” Fey said Tuesday.

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