WE have a transportation problem. The governor’s Connecting Washington report identified a maintenance shortfall of almost $800 million per year over the next 10 years just to keep roads, bridges and ferries in safe working order.
We have a climate problem. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, and the scientific consensus about the risks of global warming continues to build.
We can fix both problems at the same time. Economists from across the political spectrum agree that putting a price on carbon is the most effective and efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. British Columbia has proved them right: In the past few years our northern neighbor has reduced its carbon-dioxide emissions by 5 percent, and its economy has outperformed the rest of Canada.
The credit goes to the pioneering carbon tax that B.C. introduced in 2008. Businesses and individuals who burn fossil fuels now pay a tax of $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, and the provincial government uses the $1.2 billion in annual revenue to reduce existing taxes.
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Bringing a similar carbon tax to Washington state could provide the funds we need to maintain our transportation infrastructure. In fact, a B.C.-style carbon tax would generate about $2.3 billion per year. Just half of that would be sufficient to not only fill the transportation maintenance shortfall but also restore transit funding and help provide the K-12 school-bus funding stipulated by the state Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, we don’t just have a transportation problem and a climate problem.
We also have a reality problem, a collective unwillingness to step up to the political plate and embrace comprehensive solutions.
Our reality problem is evident in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal, which includes a fuel-tax increase — phased in over six years — that is sufficient to fund K-12 school-bus needs, but nothing else.
Our reality problem is evident in the recently released legislative agenda of the Association of Washington Business. This document acknowledges that current transportation funding sources are “inadequate,” boldly makes the case for investment in system maintenance, freight mobility and new capacity, and then degenerates into mumbling about paying for this with “funding strategies” that the Legislature should “clearly articulate.” All that the association is able to articulate is opposition to carbon pricing and support for the supermajority requirement for tax increases.
Our reality problem is evident in the environmental community as well. Many environmentalists argue that carbon-tax revenues should be dedicated to clean-energy programs, ignoring the economic value (not to mention the political value) of funding transportation maintenance.
The truth is that we’re all in this together. The business lobby can probably kill climate legislation. Environmentalists can probably kill transportation legislation. But if we work together we can make progress on both fronts.
And that’s not all. Only half of the revenue from a B.C.-style carbon tax would be needed for transportation investments. The other half could, as in B.C., go toward tax rebates that would improve economic competitiveness and help families and businesses adjust to the carbon tax. These could include a 100 percent rebate of the state business-and-occupation tax for manufacturing ($160 million per year), an extension of the high-tech research-and-development tax credits due to expire in 2015 ($200 million), funding of the Working Families Rebate to offset impacts on low-income households ($140 million), and an across-the-board property-tax rebate of more than $500 million.
We can fund these tax rebates by shifting to a carbon tax, and in the process make serious progress on our transportation and climate problems. If this sounds like a significant policy shift, that’s because it is. We need major changes to deal with climate change and transportation infrastructure. Welcome to reality.
Yoram Bauman, left, is an environmental economist and a fellow at Sightline Institute in Seattle. Ian Siadak is a Sightline intern.