Senate Democrats are looking at increasing gas taxes by as much as 15 cents a gallon over the next 12 years to provide billions of dollars...

Share story

Senate Democrats are looking at increasing gas taxes by as much as 15 cents a gallon over the next 12 years to provide billions of dollars for transportation projects including replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge.

The Senate is expected to release a statewide transportation plan Monday. The proposal is expected to spend about $8 billion over several years. Of that, $2 billion would go for the viaduct and $1.5 billion for the 520 bridge.

The split between transportation projects in the central Puget Sound region and the rest of the state hasn’t been worked out, said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We’re still playing with the numbers,” said Haugen, D-Camano Island. “It’s changing daily.”

However, the viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge are the main reasons lawmakers are putting together a transportation package this session, she said.

“Let’s face it, the main thing driving this is the viaduct and (520) bridge,” Haugen said. “Two major thoroughfares that could fall down. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Haugen said the transportation package will include weight fees and “some licensing things” but will primarily rely on the gas tax. It would increase 3 cents the first year, 2 cents the second year and then have a series of penny increases in the following years.

gas tax

Current state

gas tax: 28 cents

a gallon.

Last increase:

5 cents, approved by the legislature in 2003

Senate proposal: up to 15 cents more, phased in over the next 12 years

Not full funding

The package would not fully pay for replacing the viaduct and 520 bridge. The central Puget Sound region would have to come up with money as well, Haugen said.

She wouldn’t predict the package’s prospects in the Senate, but said it would take bipartisan support to get it approved.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, said his caucus has not discussed the package, so he doesn’t know how many Republicans will support it. He said his members are eager to do something on transportation, but they are concerned about high gas prices.

Optimistic on votes

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he believes there are enough votes to get it passed. “I think we can do it,” he said.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Ed Murray, said he likes what he has heard of the Senate proposal.

“It is the type of package that we need to do if we’re going to fix structures that are about to collapse,” said Murray, D-Seattle. “Having said that, the challenge in the House is always, ‘Where do you the find the votes for a package that large?’ And the answer to that right now is, ‘I don’t know yet.’ ”

Like Haugen, Murray said it will take a bipartisan vote to get a package approved.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said yesterday he wasn’t sure yet whether the House would support a major transportation package this year. “I don’t know, I’ve got to check with my caucus,” he said. “I haven’t had time to get with them on that issue.”

Referendum rejected

In 2002, there was a big push for a $7.8 billion transportation package that included a 9-cent gas-tax increase. Then-Gov. Gary Locke and many legislative leaders wanted to approve the package in Olympia, but Chopp insisted on sending it to the voters as Referendum 51. Voters resoundingly rejected the plan.

The following year, lawmakers increased the state gas tax by 5 cents, taking it to 28 cents. It was the first gas-tax increase in a decade. In addition, they approved a 15 percent increase in truck-weight fees and imposed a vehicle tax of 0.3 percent.

That package, which won broad bipartisan support, was expected to raise more than $4 billion over 10 years for statewide projects. But lawmakers said at the time it was a just start, and many predicted another gas-tax increase would be needed soon.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Chopp has made it clear he will insist on getting a lot of votes from the Republicans before moving forward with a package.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has indicated she wants to tackle big problems like the viaduct and the 520 bridge, but has not endorsed a specific approach.

“If we can muster the political will to fix transportation, the governor will stand behind us,” said Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, also a vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“The reason this package is still alive is that business, labor and environmental stakeholders have rallied together around it,” he said.

Andrew Garber and Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882