In the news

Erica Barnett

Bill LaBorde, lobbyist for the Transportation Choices Coalition, just unveiled the TCC’s legislative agenda for 2010. As we mentioned in Morning Fizz, the next year (and possibly 2011) looks pretty grim: A short session (60 days), combined with a $2.6 billion budget shortfall, leaves only  a few weeks for all of the state’s interest groups to propose legislation and push it through committees. “It’s a very difficult timeline, and I don’t expect to see much earth shattering happening outside the general fund issues this session.”

Currently, local transit agencies are hurting because they’re heavily dependent on sales taxes, which are falling short. Meanwhile, counties like King County are maxed out on how much they can raise sales taxes, and other counties, like Pierce, have historically been unfriendly to tax increases (especially tax increases intended just to stave off even deeper cuts). In some parts of the state, LaBorde said, local governments are looking at sales tax shortfalls of 20 percent. So clearly, transit advocates see a need for new revenue sources, and soon.

The question is whether those new revenue sources should be temporary (like allowing transit agencies to put a $20 car-license fee on the ballot, a proposal Gov. Gregoire vetoed last year) or long-term (like a sales tax on gas, a motor-vehicle excise tax, or an emissions tax on vehicles). TCC along with the Sierra Club, the Cascade Bicycle Club, Futurewise, WashPIRG, the Discovery Institute, and the Bicycle Alliance of Washington wrote a policy paper calling for a long term solution last session.

The former strategy could provide transit agencies with an immediate infusion of cash (an estimated $25 million for King County Metro alone), but comes with a big risk. The transportation committee chairs in both houses—Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10) in the Senate and Judy Clibborn (D-41)  in the House—are currently planning to roll out a big transportation package in 2011. If the legislature passes a $20 local option now, Haugen and Clibborn may “just say, ‘OK, we fixed your problem, so now [we don't have to come up with a long-term solution] and we can just raise the gas tax,” which can only pay for roads, LaBorde says.

On the other hand, if transit advocates wait for a future transportation debate to go after new transit funding, they may end up sitting around with no new revenue for years, especially if (as LaBorde thinks is likely) the economy doesn’t improve by 2011.

In addition, LaBorde said, TCC may take advantage of the fact that House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) has expressed support for allowing local governments to use their hotel/motel taxes for housing. King County’s hotel/motel tax is currently paying off bonds on Seattle’s downtown stadiums; that money will become available for other purposes in 2016. LaBorde suggested that TCC might support spending some of that money on affordable housing near transit stations—one of the major goals of last year’s transit-oriented communities bill, which would have increased density around light rail stops.

LaBorde said TCC would continue to push for incentives for pay-as-you-drive insurance, which charges drivers based on how much they drive. “It’s a nice incentive for people who don’t drive very much,” LaBorde said. “It has a nice equity value to it for seniors and lower-income people who don’t have as much reason to drive or can’t drive that much.”

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