Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Vehicle Mile Traveled Tax is off the table" claims Senator Mary Margaret Hougen

At today's Joint Transportation Meeting in Olympia Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Hougen stated that "VMT taxes are off the table."

The converstation around VMT taxes came up during the presentation to the Joint Transportation Committee on the potential alternative funding sources for future transportation needs in Washington State.

The study was commissioned by the legislature to ask how the State should fund its transportation needs in light of declining gas tax revenues. In the past few years gas taxes have been declining steadily due to increased gas prices, people driving less, and more efficient vehicles. It is expected that in future years as people switch to hybrids, electric vehicles, and drive less the gas tax will continue to be an unsustainable long term funding source for the road budget in Washington.

Today a draft version of the final funding report was given to the Joint Transportation Committee in Olympia. The funding sources that are percolating to the top are indexed gas taxes and a sales tax on gasoline.

In terms of VMT taxes the report recommended to the legislature that they await federal action on VMT before they look at implementing it in Washington. At that point Senator Hougen asked if there was anywhere in the country or world using VMT taxes system-wide. The consultants response was no. Hougen replied that people who scream about VMT taxes are using it as a fear tactic, the legislature is not going to introduce VMT taxes anytime in the near future and it simply is off the table. It was a pretty interesting dialogue, to say the least.

Here are some other notes about the report especially as it addresses the needs of transit:

On a positive note, the report recommends "expand use of toll revenue for transit". The consultant noted that they looked for examples around the country where transit operations received a portion of toll revenues from the start of tolling on corridors and projects. (Many metropolitan areas like Boston, NYC, and the Bay Area fund a significant amount of transit operations through tolls but the tolls did not go to transit when they were first implemented in decades past.) The consultant highlighted that in San Diego when they implemented HOT lanes a significant portion of the tolls went towards transit. It is great news for transit service in crucial corridors like ST 520 and the Viaduct replacement that the consultant has made this recommendation to the JTC and has found a precedent for tolling for transit from the start of tolling projects elsewhere in the country.

On a less optimistic note the funding report does not propose any new, significant, or sustainable funding sources for transit. In terms of additional local options the only tools they recommend is a .1% extension in local sales tax and a $2 per month employer tax. We are hearing from transit agencies that they have no interest in getting more sales tax authority being that it is a regressive, volatile unsustainable funding source. It is disappointing that the funding study does not pose any real proposals to solve the transit funding crisis in terms of significant state contribution to transit or local options. More soon from Olympia as I will be down here the next three days for December Committee Days.

The presentations from today's meeting on alternative funding sources will be posted to the JTC's website sometime later today.

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