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Road 'user fees' touted

"A task force charged with finding ways to pay for the state's transportation needs recommends several dramatic revenue-raising measures tied to road use.The recommendations include a vehicle tax based on weight, a tax based on mileage and significant increases in the gas tax, including adding the state sales tax to gas purchases.There is a certain fairness there that everyone can understand, said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, (D-Bainbridge Island), of the concept of linking transportation funding to use. But the devil is in the details. We need to learn more about the proposals and little by little get a sense of what people can live with.The recommendations are contained in a draft report from the revenue committee of the so-called Beighle commission, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Gary Locke in 1998. The commission will make its recommendations to Locke by December, and he, in turn, will present his own recommendations to the Legislature in January.The commission predates the repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax by Initiative 695, which blew a $750 million annual hole in the state budget, with transportation most heavily impacted.The Joint Task Force on Ferries, established, earlier this year, has been charged with making recommendations to the Legislature concerning the ferry system.Rockefeller, a member of the capital-needs subcommittee of the Joint Task Force, said that while his group is examining needs, it will defer to the Beighle commission on funding recommendations because of that group's more global outlook. Rockefeller said I-695 was a catalyst for looking at the entire transportation-funding system in the state, which he described as crazy quilt funding strategies that grew up over time with little consistency.And he cautioned that a transportation-funding crisis already existed when I-695 was passed.It is an aggravating piece of the puzzle, but by no means the centerpiece, he said of I-695. Even if we hadn't had 695, the task of preserving what we had - much less expanding to meet our needs - exceeded our revenues.The basic concept underlying the financing recommendation is to use market-pricing mechanisms to both increase funding and decrease demand. The specific mechanisms raised in the draft report are:* A weight-based user fee. This would be a flat fee per each thousand pounds of vehicle weight, justified as directly linked to the wear and tear imposed on the system by vehicles. The fee, which would apply to both cars and trucks, could replace as much as half the money lost from MVET repeal.* Per-mile use charges. The report raises the possibility of a tax of up to two cents per mile for travel in congested areas, principally Puget Sound. While the proposal is not fully fleshed out, especially in terms of reporting requirements, the report says the fee could either be collected annually or added monthly to utility bills.* Sales tax on gas. The proposal calls for imposing the state 8.2 percent sales tax on the base commodity price of gasoline, meaning the price less existing taxes. At current gasoline prices, this proposal would increase the cost of a gallon of gasoline by between 11 and 12 cents.Other suggested revenue sources include a gas-tax increase of as much as 12 cents per gallon, indexing the gas tax for inflation, dedicating the sales taxes on highway and ferry construction to transportation, adding an additional two-tenths of a cent to the state sales tax for transportation, and permitting local-option increases in licensing fees and sales taxes.These are not solid proposals at this point, only concepts, Rockefeller said, adding that he does not yet have enough information to know which, if any, he may favor. But they do seem to reward people for efficiency, which has a certain appeal.The revenue committee estimated that the existing system could be preserved through a combination of increased efficiency, indexing the gas tax and imposing a weight-based vehicle-user fee. Improving the system would require at least some of the additional revenue-raising measures.The report also recommended restructuring the ways in which revenue is distributed to various geographical areas, and suggested that in some instances, regional financing might be preferable to statewide financing.Rockefeller saw potential pitfalls for the west sound in both approaches.We need to make sure that financing the ferry system does not become the sole responsibility of the West Sound, he said. "

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