The other day I suggested that Washington state dramatically increase the motor fuel excise tax to pay for a massive investment in rail and other mass transit infrastructure. It was admittedly a bit of a thought experiment, as our state Constitution mandates that all motor vehicle fuel excise tax revenues be dedicated towards “highways,” and of course, amending the Constitution remains exceedingly difficult.
But then I got to thinking. Article II, Section 40 specifically refers to “excise taxes.” There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t also levy a sales tax on motor vehicle fuel, and there’s nothing to mandate how such revenues might be spent. Thus all the hooey we’ve been fed about how we can’t spend gas tax dollars on anything but roads and ferries is exactly that… a bunch of hooey. A simple majority in both houses, and the stroke of the governor’s pen is all we need to create a dedicated fund for building mass transit. And of course, the people are free to vote yea or nay via referendum or initiative.
This isn’t just amateur legal analysis on my part. I checked with a constitutional scholar who assured me that my reading was correct, and that similar proposals have indeed been debated from time to time. And it’s not such an original or off the wall idea; nine other states already levy both sales and excise taxes on gasoline.
The point is we can tax gasoline to help pay for transit, and we need to start having this conversation while consumers are still able to absorb rising prices. With few transit alternatives, demand has thus far proven rather inelastic, even as fuel prices have nearly tripled in real dollars over the past decade. If this sort of energy inflation continues — and with increasing global demand and approaching peak oil, there’s no reason to suspect it won’t — there might come a point over the next decade or so when today’s common driving habits become an unaffordable luxury for the vast majority of working and middle class families.
Such a mobility crisis would have a devastating impact on the economy of a region as automobile dependent as ours, and it is past time we started building towards the transportation needs of the Twenty-First Century rather than waxing nostalgic on the car culture of the Twentieth. With all the Olympia talk of taking a comprehensive approach to transportation planning that considers transit and roads as part of an integrated system, it seems downright silly to perpetuate our segregated funding system. If roads, buses and rail are really part of an integrated system, why must transit compete for property, MVET and sales tax dollars, while roads enjoy the additional succor of a dedicated gas tax? It just doesn’t make sense.
The Seattle Monorail Project didn’t fail because a West Seattle to Ballard route wasn’t needed, or because the dollar-per-mile cost was too high. It failed because it didn’t have an adequate revenue source to pay off the bonds over a reasonable period of time. But had the Legislature granted Seattle the taxing authority to allow voters to additionally levy a sales tax on gasoline, we could have easily afforded the Monorail or some other transit project.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and mass transit isn’t the solution to our transportation needs. Perhaps Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound region really is unique. But that policy debate and the transportation planning that comes out of it should not be shaped by a constitutional canard that says that gas tax revenues can only be spent on roads.
We can tax motor vehicle fuel to pay for transit. And we should.