11 Apr

Other states’ infrastructure efforts leave Oregon by the side of the road

Just like Oregon, the Washington legislature is having an argument over raising its gas tax.

Except Washington’s legislators are arguing about how they plan to raise it.

Last month, the Washington state Senate, with a Republican majority, voted to increase its state gas by 11.7 cents over three years. The Senate then voted, by a much larger margin, for a $15 billion list of infrastructure improvements – not including a Columbia River Crossing, which will apparently wait until the current bridge falls into the river – to be paid for by the gas tax.

That part is always more popular.

The Washington legislature, and the GOP-controlled Senate in particular, is still in an argument with Gov. Jay Inslee, who wants a carbon use tax. But after its last long session, when the Washington legislature couldn’t pass any kind of transportation package, it does now seem to be out in front of the Oregon legislature, where there is currently nothing in committee or maybe in consideration on a transportation package.

There are various possible explanations for Washington being ahead of Oregon on transportation, but we can probably dismiss any theory about Washington’s roads and bridges being in worse shape than ours. In parts of Oregon, we seem to be making a determined bid to reach Third World status.

Any time now, our idea of a transportation package might consist of buying everyone a burro.

Moreover, facing a national infrastructure situation that makes crossing bridges an adventure not experienced since trolls lived beneath them – and a Congress too frozen in its own gridlock to think about traffic gridlock – a convoy of states is moving to increase their own gas taxes and try to stay in motion.

Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah just signed a bill to raise his state’s gas taxes five cents a gallon, with Iowa’s rate going up 10 cents on March 1. South Dakota’s increase of 6 cents over three years began April 1, joining recent increases by Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Virginia and four other states.

At the moment, the Michigan legislature has passed an increase that needs to go before voters May 5. The Georgia House and North Carolina Senate have both passed gas tax increases, and the idea is up before other legislatures.
An intriguing aspect of the trend is that all these legislatures are controlled by Republicans. Apparently, a distaste for vanishing into potholes, or for listening for a bridge to creak as you cross, is not necessarily a partisan issue.

There are, of course, common themes to this widespread upsurge. Gas tax revenues are dwindling, due to virtually all cars getting better mileage, hybrids using much less gas and electric cars not using any. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping roads from resembling amusement park rides, and sometimes even expanding them or building new ones – isn’t disappearing.

A further challenge to states’ transportation policy is the fading of the feds. Facing the same shrinking gas tax trends, the federal highway trust fund is scheduled to run out in May. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and large numbers of congressmen have sworn blood oaths not to increase any taxes in any circumstances. The Obama administration hasn’t even proposed a gas tax increase, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insists he’s thinking about other ways to strengthen the highway trust fund, but hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

In Oregon, of course, the situation has been complicated by this session’s extension of the “clean fuels” program, lowering their carbon level and raising the price by an undetermined amount. Republicans swore that if the program were extended, they would refuse any support for a gas tax increase. At least one Republican vote would be needed in the House, and possibly in the Senate.

Right now, at 49.5 cents a gallon, Oregon’s gas tax is just about at the national average (48.5 cents), and well below Washington (55.9) and California (63.8).

Explaining to The Atlantic last week why Republican state legislatures were so much readier to raise the gas tax than Republican congressmen, Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policies pointed out that they didn’t have much choice: Legislatures had to balance state budgets, and “They can raise the gas tax, they can raise a different tax, or they can cut spending on education and other parts of the budget and spend that money on roads and bridges instead.

“Because you can only let your infrastructure get so bad before you have to find a way to deal with it.”

Or you can start buying burros.

NOTE: This column appeared inn The Oregonian, 4/8/15.