I’ve been reading more lately about Washington State’s constitution. The summer of 1889 was an eventful one around these parts. The great fire burned a large portion of Seattle to the ground and Washington became a state. Since the fire Seattle has been rebuilt, expanded, and thoroughly revised and updated with a bus tunnel, light rail, and skyscrapers. The population of the state was 357,232 according to the 1890 census and now it is well over 6 million with an economy that has diversified from the largely timber based economy of the late 19th century. However, the document that governs the lives of Washington’s people looks a lot like it did the century before last. True, it’s been amended dozens of times, but when compared to other things about Washington its constitution has failed to keep pace. I’ve already suggested changes to promote energy efficiency. What about transportation?
The first target of my constitution-editing sharpie pen, however, would actually be to one of the changes to the original consitituion: the 18th amendment, ratified in the 1940s, which dedicates:
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All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes.
The state first issued licenses for automobiles in 1905 when it issued a total of 763 licenses. By 2007, the most recent year for which the Census has information, the state issued 5,689,000 licenses generating, along with excise taxes, more than $1.7 billion in revenue for the state transportation budget. But none of that money can be spent on alternatives to “highway purposes” like transit. That’s why there is a lawsuit about putting light rail on Interstate 90.
Here’s what’s maddening: the state has also committed to reducing the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). That makes sense when we consider the source of most of the state’s carbon emissions. Washington motorists drove about 58.5 billion miles in 2008 based on estimates by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and their estimates are that VMT will rise to about 75 billion miles by 2020.
The Governor’s Climate Advisory Team recommended and legislation passed committing the state to an 18 percent reduction from a baseline of 75 million miles by 2020 and 50 percent by 2050; that means that by 2020 if the goal is met, Washingtonian’s will be driving only 61.5 billion miles per year—still, a lot of miles. But by 2035 it would mean a per capita drop of 22 miles per day by 2035 based on current population projections. Yet WSDOT is still building highways with money collected from cars. And the amount of money we’re talking about isn’t chicken feed—with billions going to a waterfront tunnel and replacing the 520 Floating Bridge.
If the state is truly going to get real about reducing carbon emissions and vehicle miles traveled, it is going to have to stop building more highways. That would mean putting more resources into more sustainable alternatives like trains, buses, and supporting strategies like transit-oriented development. And we ought to make better use of what we already have, increasing ride share programs, High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, and congestion pricing. The Climate Action Team’s transportation work group recommends that the state “align investments and operations with the achievement of the VMT and GHG reductions.” But right now spending the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into state coffers from taxing cars is going right into more infrastructure to support more car use, exactly the reverse of what state leadership says it wants. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to repeal the 18th amendment and perhaps put something in its place that requires the state to align its transportation priorities and spending with its driving and carbon emission goals.
Photo courtesy of jusben from morguefile.com
Matt the Engineer
A few comments.1. We actually seem to spend far more on our road infrastructure than we collect in gas tax. We subsidize cars to a shameful amount in this state (see comments here).2. Isn’t the logical loophole to this amendment simply to put a sales tax on gasoline? We seem to be allowed to put sales taxes on whatever we want, and the amendment specifically only mentions “excise taxes”.3. Despite my points 1 and 2, I completely agree that we should remove this from our constitution. Either that or be consistent and require all luxury taxes to be spent on luxury infrastructure, and property taxes to be spent on property infrastructure (state run fur coat farms? subsidized liquor-based theme parks?). As for spending on police – well, since there’s no tax on crime that’ll just have to go.
The way US states seem to edit their constitution is more than a little weird to me as a Canadian. Constitutions should be for fundamental law, not decided on where to spend tax dollars.
Great idea for a series, Roger. Another antiquated section of the Constitution that greatly hinders new industries such as renewable energy is the proscription against the state lending its capital to support business ventures. This means that Washington cannot invest in economic development trusts, guarantee loans, or assist projects trying to tap federal grant monies. Other states can do these things and are thus are way ahead of our state in attracting renewable energy investments.
I’m OK with all gas tax and vehicle fees going to highways, as long as those are the ONLY tax dollars going to the roads. A lot of local taxes also are going to road maintenance, that should entirely be replaced with the vehicle-related taxes and re-directed to transit and pedestrian improvements.
I kind of agree with @The Dude. Roads should only be funded by gas taxes (and eventual replaced with a mileage tax cause of the increase in hybrids, PEVs and PHEVs)and an increased VLF (to cover the elimination of the MVET and cover the real costs of maintaining a ready-to-use roadway for a vehicle that might only be used infrequently). Since these are basically user fees and roads would no longer be subsidized by the public, anyone using the roadway (transit, cargo, bicycle, etc.) would have to pay these taxes, no freebies for government-run transit agencies or government vehicles. This way everyone pays their fair share of the road costs.We should eliminate the MVET and only impose the state/local sales tax on vehicles as we would any other product.
This essay got me curious about the potential uniqueness of the Washington State constitutional restriction on fuel tax use: Answer, not unique. States with constitutional restrictions number 22.From a Brookings Institution study in 2003: “Thirty states restrict the use of their gas tax revenues to highway purposes only. Such restrictions limit states’ability to finance mass transit, congestion and air quality improvement projects, and other options not related to highways.”http://www.brookings.edu/es/urban/publications/gastax.pdfQuoting further:”Generally, the states’statutory and constitutional stipulations fall under one of three typical arrangements:”* The first and most exclusive categorical provision dedicates all gas tax receipts to public roadway development, administration, and maintenance. Frequently this regulation is embedded in state constitutions, and when it is, the wording is generally explicit. Twenty-two states maintain constitutional restrictions.”* In eight other states, statutory restrictions enacted by the legislature dedicate revenues to highway uses. The statutory provisions are presumably more amenable to reform than constitutional mandates.”* The remaining 20 states and the District of Columbia have less stringent requirements and generally allow for a multi-modal approach to the disbursement of gas tax receipts. The exact provisions and the amount of available flexible funding vary considerably among the states. Most often, the respective state codes have provisions that dedicate funds to general transportation purposes, with moderate allocations to other transportation programs, such as mass transit, congestion mitigation, and environmental impact mitigation.”Anybody know the historical reasons for these restrictions being so important as to be made constitutional? I suspect it has to do with the financial collapse of most urban transit systems in the 1930-50 period that were desperate for new revenue, and the simultaneous North American consumer embrace of gasoline-fueled automobility leading to a demand for roads that trumped in the fight for resources.I’ll bet the Good Roads Associations that existed everywhere in the last century pushed for the restrictions on fuel tax use noted here. Google [“good roads” association] to read more.
Matt the Engineer raises a most interesting point, leading to the question: Why is gasoline (and other fuels, I presume) not subject to sales taxes? Perhaps that situation can be remedied more easily than amending the constitution.