by ALEX BRONER
After reading Martin’s excellent analysis (and follow-up) on why the restrictions on the use of Gas Tax money don’t really matter, I thought it was worth bringing up another salient fact. Often in discussions regarding the gas tax, people bring up the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution. People summarize this amendment as stating that gas tax money can only be used for “highway purposes” and leave it at that. While the words “highway purposes” are indeed used by the amendment, it’s interesting to look at how it defines highway purposes. Below I quote the 18th amendment as found here.
“SECTION 40 HIGHWAY FUNDS. All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes. Such highway purposes shall be construed to include the following:
(a) The necessary operating, engineering and legal expenses connected with the administration of public highways, county roads and city streets;
(b) The construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets [emphasis added]; including the cost and expense of (1) acquisition of rights-of-way, (2) installing, maintaining and operating traffic signs and signal lights, (3) policing by the state of public highways, (4) operation of movable span bridges, (5) operation of ferries which are a part of any public highway, county road, or city street;
I’m not a lawyer, but the provision seems pretty clear to me that “highway purposes” includes city and county streets, aka local streets. While some gas tax money currently goes towards street maintenance, substantial funding for local maintenance is funded by property tax and other taxes and fees. Directing more gas tax towards road repair could free up these other funding sources for other purposes, including transit. How much money could we free up?
Below are some rough calculations based on the Seattle Department of Transportation 2009-2012 budget numbers. For simplicity, I’ve omitted spending on major projects such as the Mercer rebuild. I’ve only included those budget categories for which it is unambiguous that 18th Amendment funds could count:
|Expenses 2009-2012: ($m)|
|Bridges & Structures Major Maintenance||
|Bridges & Structures Operations||
|Roads: Major Maintenance||
How much money does the city of Seattle currently get in gas tax money and other state grants?
|Revenue 2009-2012 ($m)|
|Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax – City Street||
We subtract the two totals and we see that between 2009 and 2012 at least $283m in expenditures were eligible for gas tax money had this money been available. That’s at least $283m that could have been spent on other things. Extended over 10 years that’s over $707m. What can you get for $707m?
The 2007 bicycle master plan (which is currently in the process of being updated) estimated the cost of the plan at $240 million over 10 years, or $259 million in 2011 dollars. The Pedestrian Master plan Tier 1 projects cost $882m in 2011 dollars. The Seattle Transit Master Plan is estimated to cost $1,009m in capital costs plus another $27.8m a year for a total of $1,287m over 10 years. The Seattle Subway will probably cost many billions as it is a long term investment to connect up our neighborhoods with fast and reliable mass transit.
How does $707 million compare to other funding measures? The $60 Vehicle License Fee proposed as part of the (rejected) Proposition 1 in Seattle would have raised $204 million. The North King County Portion of the Sound Transit 2 funding package consisted of $3,569m in projects/services over 2009-2023 or $2,549m over 10 years (including inflation).
Clearly funding gas tax eligible expenses with gas tax money isn’t a magical slush fund that will give us all the money we need for effective and sustainable transportation, but it’s a good start. From a public transit perspective, one of the other benefits of raising the gas tax is that higher gas prices for motor vehicle drivers means more transit usage. If some of that $707m is used on improving existing bus service with off vehicle fare payment, signal priority, and dedicated right of way, then more riders will raise revenue without slowing down service. If some of that money is also used to accelerate planning, design, and environmental review then we can build out our city and regional high capacity transit systems fast enough to deal with the looming challenges of global warming, peak oil, and demographic transition. So next time you hear the “conventional wisdom” that gas tax money can’t be used towards transit, go ahead and point out what the 18th Amendment actually says and all the benefits we could have from liberating on 18th Amendment funds.