House Republicans on state transportation system: Fix it before you fund it
Washington House Republicans want six economic and transportation reforms before they consider a House Democratic package to raise the state gas tax by 10 cents. The minority party's plan would create jobs, make state gas tax dollars go further, ensure accountability, and protect taxpayers.
“A state gas tax increase of this size is something many people cannot afford – especially those out of work and rural communities that have been hit hardest by the economy. These folks need jobs, or better paying ones, and the assurance their state government is working for them – not against them,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. “We need to see how we can make our gas tax dollars go further before we reach further into taxpayers' pockets.”
Under the House Democrats' package, Washingtonians would pay one of the highest gas taxes in the nation at nearly 48-cents-per-gallon – more than doubling it since 2003. With federal taxes, consumers would pay 66 cents in state and federal taxes for every gallon of gas they purchase.
“We are concerned about signing a multi-billion dollar check to a group of state lawmakers who have neglected the economy and failed to properly manage the last gas tax increase,” said House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt. “We need jobs, accountability and taxpayer protections. Our solutions reflect these goals.”
Two economic reforms being pushed by House Republicans involve the state's unpredictable permitting process and cumbersome Growth Management Act (GMA). The bills are part of a comprehensive economic package introduced by the group earlier in the legislative session.
House Bill 1236 would require state agencies to make a permit decision in 90 days or the permit is granted. This would add certainty and eliminate unnecessary delays in the permitting process, which would stimulate economic activity.
House Bill 1619 would suspend GMA requirements in counties with persistent unemployment, where regulations often stand in the way of economic development.
Making state gas tax dollars go further
The minority party wants to stretch state gas tax dollars and ensure they are dedicated to highway purposes as required by the 18th Amendment of the state constitution. One of their solutions is to exempt future state transportation projects from state and local sales and use tax, which would be accomplished through House Bill 1985.
By the time the state finishes paying for transportation projects funded by the 9.5 cent state gas tax increase passed in 2005, it will shift approximately $632 million in sales tax from the transportation budget to the general fund to pay for non-transportation areas of state government.
“If people are going to be forced to pay more when they buy gas, they should at least have the assurance that their money is going to transportation needs – not other things in the operating budget,” said Orcutt, former House Republican finance lead and member of the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. “Imagine what our state could have built with the sales tax from the last gas tax increase. This is about making gas tax dollars go further.”
House Republicans are also concerned about high-profile transportation failures. Examples include the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) building an off-ramp to Highway 16 in the wrong place, well-documented waste in Washington State Ferries, and design errors in the new 520 Bridge project.
WSDOT admitted last week that it made mistakes while building pontoons for the new 520 Bridge and failed to run models before beginning construction. The errors could cost taxpayers $100 million. A “SR 520 Pontoon Construction Project Internal Review Report” can be found here.
House Bill 1986 would require WSDOT to report to the Legislature on engineering errors and mistakes that exceed $500,000. The report would need to explain how it happened, who was responsible, what disciplinary steps were taken, and what actions the secretary of transportation recommends to avoid similar errors in the future.
“There's a culture of failure in Olympia that is unacceptable. The group at the center of this failure now wants more money from taxpayers at the pump,” said Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, and assistant ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. “This debate needs to begin with accountability and taxpayer protections – not project lists to entice votes in the Legislature. We understand there's future maintenance needs, but we're not going to throw more money at a broken system.”
House Republicans are also seeking two taxpayer protections. House Bill 1984 would limit WSDOT's tort liability based on the amount of the department's actual fault, instead of allowing plaintiffs to recover the entire judgment from the deeper pockets of the state.
Since 2005, WSDOT has paid out more than $116 million in lawsuit payouts. In 2010 alone, WSDOT paid out $28.6 million.
“We need to fix our transportation system before we fund it,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. “With reforms come more revenue for important projects like the North-South Freeway. For more than 60 years, the people of Spokane have been promised this project. They deserve better results.”
The final reform House Republicans are seeking is a change in how the state bonds for transportation projects. House Bill 1989 would limit bond terms for transportation projects to 15 years.
“Our state needs to stop paying for construction projects over a thirty-year period when the jobs they create usually only last for five or ten. And, with such a long bonding time frame, my great-grandchildren will be paying the bill we charge up today,” said Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, and assistant ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. “Bonding for fifteen years would save the state interest payments and move us toward getting our debt under control.”
House Republicans are also exploring other cost-saving reforms – including eliminating the “Build in Washington” requirement for ferry construction and requiring future ferries be designed exclusively by the contractor so all design risks are allocated to the contractor. The group is also looking to streamline and coordinate the permitting of transportation projects costing more than $5 million and exploring further use of public-private partnerships.
· House Bill 1236 – improve permitting process.
· House Bill 1619 – suspend GMA requirements in counties with persistent unemployment.
Making state gas tax dollars go further
· House Bill 1985 – eliminate state and local sales and use tax on new transportation projects.
· House Bill 1986 – require WSDOT to report engineering errors.
· House Bill 1984 – limit WSDOT's tort liability.
· House Bill 1989 – 15-year bond terms.
###Washington State House Republican Communications