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Sunday, May 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Readers say: Tax gas, autos to fund transportation

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tax gas. Tax cars. Charge tolls on new bridges or freeway lanes.

But please don't use a big sales-tax increase to pay for regional transportation fixes.

That's the prevailing opinion among nearly 2,000 readers who responded to The Seattle Times' invitation this spring to design their own individual packages to address King County's traffic troubles.

Those who participated in the "You Build It" survey chose from a menu of 29 projects — including several alternatives for "megaprojects" such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Highway 520 and Interstate 405 — then found the money to pay for their picks from among eight revenue sources.

On average, the results suggest, they want a bigger package than the executive board of the three-county Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) has tentatively proposed.

They also want to pay for it differently.

The regional district hopes to submit a package of projects and taxes to King, Snohomish and Pierce county voters, most likely next year.

The "You Build It" ballot appeared in The Seattle Times on Sunday, March 30, just as the RTID began soliciting public comment. The project's goal: Give readers a better sense of the options and trade-offs that decision makers face, and give the decision makers a better sense of what citizens want.

Readers could either fill out the paper ballot and mail it in, or express their preferences online. About 85 percent of those responding did so via the Internet.

This wasn't a scientific poll. The results reflect only the views of readers who chose to participate.

They are what public-opinion experts call a "self-selected sample." Stuart Elway of Elway Research, who tabulated and analyzed the responses, said they "probably tilted toward people who want to build projects and away from those who don't want to raise taxes."

On average, the 1,917 participants supported $12 billion for projects and $12.1 billion in new revenue for transportation in King County over the next 15 years — nearly $3 billion more than the RTID has tentatively proposed for the county.

Their favorite projects? Replacements for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 floating bridge, both aging, seismically suspect facilities whose vulnerability has been widely publicized.

Participants also displayed a clear preference for paying for projects with taxes and fees that relate directly to driving. The RTID's tentative package, in contrast, relies on a general sales-tax increase for two-thirds of its funding.

The survey was completed before the Legislature approved a statewide transportation package last weekend that is financed mostly by a gas-tax increase of 5 cents per gallon, to be imposed in all parts of the state. Any regional taxes would be on top of that.

Nearly four-fifths of all "You Build It" participants supported a regional gas tax to help pay for projects — and 44 percent picked a tax of 10, 15 or 20 cents per gallon.

Nearly three-quarters favored a flat, annual vehicle license fee. More than two-thirds supported a motor-vehicle excise tax. More than six in 10 backed tolls on some new or expanded highways.

A majority — 57 percent — did back a sales-tax increase. But most wanted one smaller than the 0.5 percentage-point boost the RTID has tentatively offered.

Gas taxes favored

Altogether, three-quarters of the "You Build It" participants wanted either no sales-tax increase or one of just 0.1 or 0.3 percentage points.

Support for a regional gas tax of some size — and lack of support for a sales-tax increase of the magnitude that the RTID is proposing — was fairly consistent among participants of all stripes: Seattleites, Eastsiders, South King County residents, drive-alone commuters, transit riders, newcomers to the region and long-time residents.

To pay for his projects, Mark Demianew of Redmond chose a 20-cents-per gallon gas tax, a $150-per-car annual vehicle-license fee, a 1 percent motor-vehicle excise tax and tolls — but no sales tax.

Yes, Demianew drives. He pilots an Acura Legend down Interstate 405 early each morning to his sales job with a Bellevue software firm. If the taxes he supports became law, he'd pay.

But the sales tax hits low-income people harder, he said. User fees on driving make more sense to him: "I just think people that consume more should pay more."

Sharon Chen, who lives on Seattle's Capitol Hill and usually travels in a bus or carpool to work at Microsoft in Redmond, also picked the 20-cent gas tax — the highest option listed — but no sales tax.

"Someone buying a sweater and paying a higher sales tax on it — there's no connection (to transportation) there," she said. Vehicle taxes, in contrast, "more directly reflect the usage of resources."

A statistical difference

Statistically, "You Build It" participants differed from the county population as a whole in some important ways. Half, for instance, live in Seattle, which accounts for just one-third of the county's population.

Transit users also were over-represented. More than one participant in five listed transit as his or her primary mode of transportation. While the numbers aren't directly comparable, just 10 percent of King County commuters who responded to the 2000 census said they used public transit to get to work.

"While this is not statistically representative of the King County population," Elway said of the exercise, "it does present what 2,000 citizens came up with, given information and given time to work through the issue.

"It makes you wonder what would happen if more people had more information and took the time to work through it."

What most needs fixing

The results show citizens making some rational choices, Elway said. Most didn't choose the most expensive option for a project, or the cheapest. Most didn't choose the lowest or highest tax or fee.

Seventy percent provided enough tax money to pay for their projects, and an additional 18 percent came within $1 billion. Elway said their willingness to tax themselves more heavily than the RTID has proposed shows they aren't afraid to pay for solutions they think will address problems.

But they didn't always agree on what the most important problems were. Support for many of the 29 projects varied widely in different parts of the county.

Besides the viaduct and 520, just four other projects won the support of more than half the 2,000 participants:

• Widening Interstate 405.

• A countywide signal-synchronization program.

• Extending Sound Transit's proposed light-rail line south from Tukwila to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

• Converting Seattle's King Street Station into a modern, multimodal transportation hub.

The "You Build It" participants' strong support for driving-related taxes and fees seems to contradict some of last November's election results. State voters overwhelmingly rejected Referendum 51, a statewide transportation package centered on a 9-cent gas-tax increase, and approved Initiative 776, which sought to limit motor-vehicle taxes to $30 a year.

But King County bucked the rest of the state trend in voting against I-776. And Referendum 51 fared better in King than in most counties, actually passing in Seattle.

Voters in Seattle also narrowly approved a 1.4 percent motor-vehicle excise tax to pay for a monorail.

While many survey participants support a big regional gas tax, state law currently prohibits the RTID from proposing one. The district board asked the Legislature to give it permission to submit a tax of up to 6 cents a gallon to voters, but lawmakers last month authorized a regional tax of no more than 2.8 cents.

The RTID board's tentative $14.4 billion, three-county package — which includes $9.3 billion for King County — would be financed by a flat $75 annual vehicle license fee and 0.2 percent motor-vehicle excise tax in addition to a sales-tax increase. Tolls also are being considered.

Many "You Build It" participants expressed willingness to pay higher taxes on their vehicles than the RTID proposes. Nearly six in 10 supported an excise tax of 0.4 percent or more. One-third picked a license fee of $100 or $150.

The Seattle area has no recent experience with tolls; no one has paid them here since they were removed from the 520 bridge in 1979.

Yet more than four in 10 "You Build It" participants backed stiff tolls on some roads, including $4 or more to drive in a "HOT" lane — an HOV lane which solo drivers could use for a fee — on I-405 between Tukwila and I-90.

"That's fine by me," said Daniel Dolson, a shipping-company executive from Skyway, between Seattle and Renton. "It's pay for use."

Dolson often drives 405 to Bothell on business, sometimes in heavy traffic. When getting to an important meeting on time is vital, "there are times I would be so willing to pay $5 to $10 to use a lane like that," he said.

Dolson also backed a 20-cent gas tax, a 1 percent motor-vehicle excise tax and extending the sales tax to gas. "I believe the people who use the roads should be paying for them," he said.

Not everyone agrees. Larry Yarnell, a truck driver from Kent who voted against Referendum 51 last fall, picked a 1 percent sales-tax increase to pay for his projects. One reason: As the economy stagnates and people drive less, he said, gas-tax revenue will shrink. A sales tax would be more stable.

A big sales-tax increase also was the centerpiece of Mike Root's package. It would be easier to administer than a regional gas tax, he said.

And with a regional gas tax on top of the new statewide gas tax, "we'd be piling another tax onto a tax we're just getting," said Root, a land surveyor who lives in North Bend.

We'd hardly notice it, counters Walt Weaver, a retired U.S. Forest Service engineer who lives in North Seattle. But Weaver's car is a gas-electric hybrid. "I'm looking at things from a little different perspective," he admitted.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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