Earlier this week I grumped that this Seattle Times editorial misled readers about the finances behind a four-cent per gallon statewide gas tax.  Among other problems, the editorial overstates how much a four-cent per gallon gas tax could accomplish.  Over 30 years, it would finance less than $2 billion in infrastructure projects, which would only begin to pay for the highway projects—such as rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct (expected to cost $4 billion without cost overruns) and the SR-520 floating bridge ($3 billion or so)–that the editorialists supported.

Now, it looks like the Washington Senate is considering a 15 cent per gallon gas tax hike, as part of a larger package that would raise about $8 billion for transportation projects—with nearly half of that money slated for the Viaduct and the floating bridge.

That’s getting a little closer to reality.

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  • Still, this proposal would pay for only about half the costs of those two megaprojects.  The state might be able to scrounge up a little more money from tolls, federal grants, and the like.  But it would still leave a tab of at least $3 billion or so for taxpayers in the Seattle area.

    And it still wouldn’t pay for other projects, like resurfacing I-5, which is also near the end of its design life, or many of the other major projects that the state is itching to take on in the Puget Sound region.

    I’m wondering if this isn’t just the opening gambit in a strategy to push through a much smaller tax hike.  State legislators must be aware of how easy it would be easy to whip up an anti-tax furor over this.  A tax of 15 cents per gallon adds up to about $65 per person each year.  You could argue that, in a big economy, that’s a drop in the bucket.  But over a decade, it’s a tax hike of $2,600 for a family of four—nearly half of which will be spent to replace a few miles of highway in central Puget Sound.  Just try selling that in Tacoma or Everett, let alone the Tri-cities or Spokane.

    And consider:  a couple of years ago, state voters trounced a proposal to raise gas taxes by 9 cents per gallon—and those tax revenues would have been distributed fairly broadly around the state. Given that lesson, if I were a legislator I’d be really cautious about endorsing a 15 cent tax—especially if my constituents rarely drove on the Viaduct or 520 floating bridge.

    The irony in all this is that a tax hike of 15 cents per gallon is much, much too low.  It won’t pay to replace the existing road infrastrucutre.  It won’t affect drivers’ behavior much, or do much to reduce the region’s reliance on imported fuels.  It will barely affect the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet.  It won’t pay for national defense costs for the petroleum supply.  It won’t pay for pollution, for CO2 emissions, for you name it. 

    But it’s still, if I had to bet, more than the amount that Washington voters are willing to swallow.