As a self-appointed tunnel argument policeman I’ll point out some problems with this Eli Sanders post:

Because the question keeps coming up: Couldn’t we use those billions of dollars for something else right now?

The simple answer: Yes. We could definitely use those billions for something else right now. The list of needs, from social services to other transportation projects, is endless. But to re-appropriate those tunnel billions for something else you’d first have to remove them from of the place where they’re being held.

First of all:

There’s $2.4 billion in state funds allocated for building the downtown tunnel, but that giant hunk of money is cobbled together from a bunch of different sources: $339.8 million in federal funds (can’t re-appropriate those); $247.4 million in other state transportation funds (which could only be re-appropriated by an act of the legislature).

I made this mistake at first too, but a lot of that $247.4m is gas tax money, just not from the 2003 or 2005 gas tax increases. The rest is vehicle license fees and so on. There’s no way Sanders should have known that, as I found out in a private tweet from Mike Lindblom.


If you can get a constitutional amendment passed, then next you grab $700 million to $1 billion from the tunnel project’s pile of gas tax cash and leave the rest. It will be needed for tearing down the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct and implementing the I-5 improvements / surface transit option.

For the record, the DBT is $4.0 billion without transit improvements, surface/transit/I-5 is $3.5 billion. So the difference $500m or $700m if the state decides to keep its promises. However, in a surface/transit option the $400m in tolling money evaporates, so we’re down to the low hundreds of millions.

Lastly, a constitutional amendment is just about the most painful way to go about this kind of change. Much more direct is replacement of most of the gas tax with repeal of the sales tax exemption for gasoline. This subsidy amounts to $500m a year from the state (p.291) and $156m a year from local governments, including by my calculation about $28m from Metro. Some of this sales tax revenue would flow directly to transit agencies, and much of the rest to unrestricted funds with no constitutional requirement for highway building. That’s the equivalent of one U-Link every 3 years.

51 Replies to “Gas Tax Problems”

  1. One U-Link every 3 years is about what we need. We’re decades behind in transit investment. Even with that kind of funding schedule I can easily come up with two decades of obvious improvements.

    This seems like the single most important battle that transit advocates could undertake, and unlike a lot of things people do talk about, this is quite achievable. It also has the benefit of directly challenging Eyman’s most recent tax initiative.

      1. We need an edit.

        I mean, first off all, is it legal to phase in a tax? B/c I think an overnight jump in the price of gas by 10% (especially since we are realistically talking about 2013/2014 prices at the earliest) would be quite significant. Too much for most people or legislatures to handle.

        Once you make it possibly saleable, then you got to go about selling it. How do we do that?

      2. “I think an overnight jump in the price of gas by 10%…would be quite significant.”

        Already went up that much in the last month where I live, for no good reason. :-0

      3. Heck gasoline went from $2.96 to 3.25 in my neighborhood in the last month as well. That’s nearly a 10% increase for again no reason that I can tell either. Tax away I say!

      4. It wouldn’t have to be a jump. Just find the average price of gasoline in WA state over the past 30 days, find out what 6.5% is, and decrease the excise tax on gas by an equivalent amount.

    1. I think singling out the gas sales tax exemption would be a hard sell. Perhaps eliminating all sales tax exemptions would be easier? Make it appealing and fairer by reducing the sales tax at the same time, so a significant percentage of the increased revenue (60%?) is returned to the citizens. So state sales tax revenue increases but a vast majority of goods and services get cheaper.

      It would be interesting to calculate how much the state sales tax could be lowered. I would figure it out if I wasn’t so lazy…

  2. I am not sure that is any easier. Unless the leg really gets some courage and challenges Eyman in the courts you’re looking at a 2/3 requirement to eliminate the exemption. And there would almost certainly be a referendum filed. Maybe it’d be an easier sell with voters, but I am not sure.

  3. [Ot, there is no debate that transit is subsidized.]

    [Many OT troll-feeding responses deleted.]

    1. By the way, have you noticed that the roads your buses use are not in particularly excellent condition? We need more money for roads — not for trains.

      The solution to repairing the roads is to build a $1.9 billion tunnel?

      1. No. The solution to repairing the roads is to stop wasting billions of dollars on little trains, and spend that money on roads, which the vast majority of the public — including bus riders — actually use.

      2. I would not build the tunnel, either, I would rebuild the viaduct, but the money being spent on light rail would certainly improve our roads significantly. Even the money being wasted on the streetcars would help our roads.

        Of course, using the money being spent on light rail to repair our roads instead would go a long way towards solving our road repair problems. That is pretty obvious, is it not?

      3. Andrew, we’ve already established that Norman doesn’t believe in big-ticket infrastructure spending. I previously challenged him to name a single big-ticket infrastructure project in the US in the past 10 years which he thought was a worthwhile use of money, and he couldn’t come up with a single one.

      4. The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

        Okay — looks like I was wrong. Thank you for responding.

        Part 2: what do you think made this project worthwhile, compared to (say) the DBT/520 rebuild? (I already know why you think it’s more worthwhile than Link.)

      5. I already said I would support a new viaduct. It would have much greater capacity than the tunnel, could have onramps and offramps downtown, like the current viaduct, and would cost less than a tunnel.

        I am not opposed to a new 520 bridge. I am certainly opposed to putting light rail over it, or the I-90 bridge.

      6. Norman,
        You’re wrong. The propose viaduct rebuild had the same number of lanes as the DBT and had no downtown exits.

    2. Plenty of “transit” initiatives fund roads around here, Norman…

      For example, the City of Seattle is spending dollars on improving roads to make buses move faster, such as along the future Rapid Line to West Seattle.

      And, before you rush to say these are improvements at the expense of cars, I’ll point to several streets Downtown that have been prioritized for re-paving because of work on the South End Viaduct project. 1st Ave buses are turning up Cherry St, for example. But plenty of cars are enjoying the smoother ride now, too.

  4. While most of the tunnel money is gas tax money, very little of the money for 520 is from the gas tax. If we wanted to spend the tunnel money on something other than highways all we would have to do is appropriate the gas tax money for 520 and use the 520 tolls to pay for our highest priority.

    And are the construction costs exempt from the sales tax like they are on 520? If so that is another pot of money from the tunnel that we could use for other things.

      1. Yes but we need a transit enabled 520 bridge, not an eight lane behemoth. Trouble is we are building a 6 lane bridge with bicycle paths, and a break down lane which is effectively 8 lanes of space. It’s too bad that we can’t get fixed rail on this version of the bridge, one lane for general traffic and a bike/pedestrian lane.

      2. By “transit-enabled”, do you mean light rail? I’m still not convinced that light rail makes sense for 520. In particular, there are at least three major destinations (DT Bellevue, Overlake/Redmond, and Kirkland), and none of them are on a common segment. The area between Evergreen Point and 108th is virtually undeveloped, and there’s no plan for that to change.

        This is the kind of situation which BRT handles perfectly. You can build infrastructure (like HOV 3+ lanes, dedicated ramps, etc.) for the common segments, but still have branches at the end. With rail, this becomes much more expensive, since you have to build some amount of infrastructure for the whole line.

        Especially when you consider that the biggest destinations will already have rail service, I’m not sure that a second Eastside line would be worth the money.

  5. “No. The solution to repairing the roads is to stop wasting billions of dollars on little trains, and spend that money on roads, which the vast majority of the public — including bus riders — actually use.”

    Convince the public. Lately the local ones have been voting against roads, and for light rail. Once the system is fully built out it’ll be a permanent & very popular fact of life, with high ridership, high quality service, & very useful routes. It’s going to make getting around the region much easier. And there’s not a thing you can do about it.

  6. IF you pulled gas tax money away from the DBT on the waterfront, there’s the 520 bridge project which is currently $2 billion short. There is also the near-term future need to rebuild and repave portions of I-5 through Downtown Seattle.

    There is certainly not a lack of “Seattle-area” roads projects to spend state tax dollars on.

  7. Once East Link is up and running how long will it take to go from BTC to Husky Stadium? I don’t think people would have to tranfer downtown either!

    1. South Bellevue to UW is 26 minutes (*). Add 2-3 minutes for BTC. This assumes the original preferred route.

      For comparison, bus #271 from BTC to 15th/42nd is 24 minutes at 10am Saturday, 25 min at 8am weekday, 26 min at 5pm weekday. Eastbound is worse: 25 min at 10am Saturday, 31 min at 8am weekday, 33 min at 5pm weekday.

      BTC to Overlake TC is 10 minutes.

      (*) East Link library, SDEIS “Overview Fact Sheet” link.

      1. There’s no reason for the 271 to go away when East Link opens. It’s one of Bellevue’s only local frequent routes, and serves much more than the Bellevue-UW market.

      2. I was just making a time-comparison for East Link. For BTC (and thus all of Bellevue) to UW, it’s 5-10 minutes worse than the 271 except for one particular trip where it’s slightly better — even though Link makes a long detour. Of course the 271 has additional responsibilities (Medina, Eastgate, Issaquah) which Link doesn’t directly cover.

        I should have included a bus comparison that includes the detour. #550 (35 min) + transfer (5-10 min) + 71X (10 min) = 50 min.

        Link times get worse from Overlake or Redmond to UW, but from downtown Bellevue it’s comparable.

  8. I have to tell you, I used to be a big fan of this site but you’ve kind of lost me on your militant anti-tunnelism.

    Near as I can tell, you’re anti-tunnel because you think it’s taking something away from you, but what that something is, I’m not exactly sure.

    I’ve asked for you to explain what exactly the benefits of the supposed “I-5/Surface/Transit” plan are (let alone what it actually IS), and you haven’t done so; not nearly as much as you’ve said what you don’t like.

    In point of fact, you’ve actually managed to convince yourselves that the best thing for Seattle is build a new elevated highway on the waterfront. Separate yourself from your tunnel hatred for just a minute. Do you REALLY think we ought to put a new, wider (it’d have to be) elevated highway on our waterfront?

    I just don’t get it. As you’ve acknowledged time and again, there’s no way the existing tunnel funding sources (like the gas tax) could be used for transit. There’s no political capital for your preferred “design” (and I’ll keep it in quotes until I see an actual explanation of what it is) and the state just signed a contract today.

    I want more transit too, but I think some people here are missing the forest for the trees. For the approx. $10B the state is spending on the tunnel and 520, the region is spending $17B on light rail. If McGinn and his allies — yourselves included? — could quit it with the with us or against rhetoric, we might well be able to add west side light rail to that figure.

    Instead, this site and others are tilting at anti-tunnel windmills and I don’t understand why.

    1. Did you even read what Martin wrote? I think you need to go back and read it again.

      He essentially just smacked down an anti-tunnel column by Eli Sanders.

      1. More a general reaction to the tunnel talk of late. I don’t see how it connects to your mission and it’s making your site less fun for me to read.

        I was responding to the general conversation happening in this article and others recently.

    2. The I-5/surface/transit scenario was one of the official alternatives for the waterfront considered by WSDOT/King County/Seattle in 2008. Specifically, after evaluating the 8 primary scenarios, they created two hybrids with the best parts of each. One was I-5/surface/transit (fact sheet), and the other was an elevated bypass (fact sheet).

      Among other things, that proposal would:

      – Reconnect the grid across Aurora north of the Battery St Tunnel
      – Add transit lanes on many arterials
      – Make 3rd Ave transit-only all day
      – Build a First Ave streetcar
      – Add new trolleybus routes
      – Add lots more service hours

      All in all, the plan contains about $500 million worth of investment in transit.

      As a rule, whenever anyone here refers to I-5/surface/transit, we mean that proposal precisely. So if you have any doubts about what we mean, just read the fact sheet. :)

      1. Each element of the surface/transit proposal would likely pass if put up to voters. I have my doubts that a 1st Ave Streetcar would serve much purpose, unless it was part of a much longer line, but I don’t see Seattleites voting it down.

        Many elements of surface/transit will happen, anyway, given enough time.

        The real question, I think, is what happens with the tunnel, for which the state is now obligated to pay the contractors over a billion dollars, when (not if) the money runs out. Does the tunnel boring stop? Do the entrance improvements get scaled back?

        My bet is that, when push comes to shove, the tolls get extended (whether or not Mayor McGinn is still in office). The same goes for the mostly-unfunded 520. I just don’t see the Seattle delegation in Olympia going along with a special property tax district if the money is set aside for completing the tunnel project.

        Given that likelihood, I think it behooves us to lobby to get some of that toll money to help build projects serving the same corridors, such as more buses and Link.

    3. Near as I can tell, you’re anti-tunnel because you think it’s taking something away from you, but what that something is, I’m not exactly sure.

      2+ Billion dollars from the public coffers. There was discussion and votes. Then there was “the deal” with Governor Gregoire, Mayor Nickles and a few select insiders. Now the State is signing contracts and committing funds to something that was never vetted in the public light and doesn’t even have the required environmental impact statements in place. A tunnel might be the right answer but competing proposals like 5th avenue (which I think had much more merit and more design work complete) were dismissed out of hand. Gregoire is desperate to have a legacy. She’s done almost the same end around with the 520 bridge.

      I’ve asked for you to explain what exactly the benefits of the supposed “I-5/Surface/Transit” plan are (let alone what it actually IS),
      Me too. But we the people got the deep bore shaft before any of that could be worked out. I’d point out there have been a lot of questions regarding the effectiveness of the DBT and none have been adequately explained. To cut to the quick, how does a four lane road without access to most of what the current six lane viaduct serves actually provide a replacement?

      In point of fact, you’ve actually managed to convince yourselves that the best thing for Seattle is build a new elevated highway on the waterfront.

      I think Martin is the only one to suggest a new elevated structure. I happen to agree because compared to the DBT (rather than the old viaduct) the new elevated structure would be single level. Really hard to compare the visual impact of that to the current structure and as I’ve said numerous times… covered space in Seattle is a benefit, not a liability to pedestrian access. Certainly much better than the mega “boulevard” which is conveniently ignored in the plan to “run it all underground”. The dirty little secret is that the DBT will destroy the waterfront with an impassable parking lot of cars stuck in gridlock because there is no surface/transit planning (or really much planning at all) in the current DBT. That’s why it just appeared out of nowhere.

      you’ve acknowledged time and again, there’s no way the existing tunnel funding sources (like the gas tax) could be used for transit.

      Maybe there’s a feeling that money shouldn’t be wasted even if it’s not money that can be directly diverted to transit. After all the accounting tricks are played it’s still a zero sum game.

      1. As far as what’s missing in the surface/tunnel plan is a less myopic view on moving people and vehicles. The plan, likes its lesser alternatives, is too focused on movement within downtown. All the plans really needed to take a better look at movement between major far-flung destinations and downtown, and how those movement modes connect to downtown.

        If that larger picture had been taken into account, we could have looked at how better to get people from West Seattle into and out of downtown, how better to get people from Federal Way into and out of downtown, etc. (Y’all know the answer.)

        We already have a plan for getting people into and out of downtown from North Seattle. It is a combination of BRT and Link. The tunnel plan assumes too much status quo, so many of its assumed trips will never materialize, given its failure to acknowledge other transportation improvements that are in the works. (Hence, the tunnel financing will collapse, even without the “cost overruns”, of which the allowance is over half used-up already. The “revenue underruns” are coming …)

        Mc Ginn or no McGinn, history is not going to be kind to this Seattle City Council, or Governor Gregoire, overseeing perhaps the biggest financial fiasco in Seattle history.

    4. Selma,

      You give up on a blog when you disagree with 3% of the posts?

      I’ve linked to the final iteration of the Surface/Transit/I-5 plan repeatedly, so here it is again:

      It is a deliberate distortion of what I wrote to say that a new elevated is my preferred option. From the exact editorial where I say that a viaduct is better than the tunnel:

      We’ve made it abundantly clear that the Surface/Transit/I-5 option is the best one, on the policy merits, to replace the viaduct.

      I have no idea how you define or measure “political capital”, but the Mayor, one city councilmember, and about a third of the population agree with me. Am I not supposed to oppose projects that are likely to pass?

      Why am I against it? I am opposed to highways through downtown that discourage use of transit. I am opposed to use of unrestricted Port of Seattle and City of Seattle funds to support a highway project. I am opposed to a project that will increase congestion on city streets without providing good transit alternatives. Lastly, when there are three options, and one has ZERO transit and the others have “some transit”, I think the one with zero transit is worst. What’s so hard to understand about that?

  9. Calling Norman names doesn’t make his arguments wrong. Nor does his stuck “caps” key make them convincing. It’s too bad there’s no way to yell in this medium, but life isn’t fair.

    1. The only Americans paying full price for this country’s dependence on private automobiles for public transit are permanent residents of VA hospitals, home from our current permanent war for oil. It would be only common decency, let alone minimal patriotism, to raise Federal gasoline taxes to where they cover every war-related dime for the duration, and lifetime car for vets as well.

    2. Modern Bellevue and everyplace like it would not exist if it weren’t for the giant military highway system built at taxpayers’ expense to enable the US to survive a two-front world war. Dwight Eisenhower is probably spinning in his grave at the results: our major cities wrecked like Berlin in 1945, and our foreign policy hostage to tyrannies that hate us. If the Interstates were national defense sixty years ago, rail transit is now. Finance it accordingly.

    3. The most galling expense of owning my car is fixing the damage done by being forced to drive it in city and suburban traffic. Precisely because I do love the car I have now, it’s worth serious money to me to buy myself a transit system that will let me prolong my car’s life, and give me freedom my car can’t. The main reason so few people use trains now is that so few trains exist. In 1952, few people used freeways- for the same reason. Caps, boldface, and italics: Times change.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Hear hear on points (1) and (2).

      As for (3), I too am a car owner. While I appreciate the conveniences of it, I would gladly trade it for effective local public transit. I don’t take transit to save money – I’d have to go carless to realize any savings. Sometimes I wonder – do we all own our cars, or do our cars own us? (caveat: most people don’t own their cars, their bank does).

      1. Given that you won’t save any money on depreciation, or that interest on your auto loan whether or not you drive your car, you do save money in maintenance and operation costs when you drive less. Last year I bicycled 4K miles that I would have driven. I get only 20mpg and tires last maybe 40K (rated 60K), so I saved 1/10th of my replacement tires ($60), One oil change $25, $600 in gasoline (avg $3/gal), and I have a lower insurance policy because I drive less than the average, $200/yr. I also didn’t wear out the other engine parts, for maybe a savings of $250 (engines last 15 years?) Of course I also didn’t join a health club but I’m healthier, ($50/mo -> $600). But I also spent $500 on bike related stuff, lights, clothing, tires etc, I figure I’m ahead by about $1,500 a year.

        And I rely on transit for the days I can’t ride.

      2. To be sure there are some benefits in reduced maintenance costs. I get 35-37mpg, own my car outright (it had 80k miles when I bought it), and the maintenance costs are about as low as feasible by today’s standards.

        As you point out, the bigger benefits are in personal health and to my fellow humans. I wouldn’t do it at all if there weren’t at least some benefits, but my point was that I’m a choice rider, not a dependent one.

        And my point about cars owning people is that by choosing to focus our transportation solutions primarily through the use of personal automobiles, we as a society limit the way we can use land and the way we consume resources.

        Even though I may sound like it sometimes, I’m not a war on cars kind of guy; rather, I’m a pragmatist. Personal automobiles are very good for certain things, but in my opinion routine intercity transportation (once all externalities are factored in) are not one of them. It requires too much pavement and moving and storing too many tons of material.

  10. And by the way, that’s lifetime “care” for veterans- including lifetime transit passes on the system they deserve.

    Mark Dublin

  11. If a sales tax is imposed on gasoline, is it calculated against the base cost of the fuel without the State and Federal taxes that are in place now? Or would it replace the current tax on fuel?

    I think it is disingenuous to say that gasoline receives a sales tax subsidy when in fact it is taxed significantly by our State via the fuel tax.

    1. As we’re told so often, the fuel tax is a “user fee” that doesn’t even manage to cover the costs of the roads it’s supposed to fund.

  12. The best thing about the tunnel is its funded by property taxes.

    Washingtonians don’t pay fair or equitable property taxes for the premium services and “infrastructure” they demand.

    Property taxes are the only equitable way to tax people (before the 1913 income tax bill they were the only way!)

    Property taxes reflect assets. It’s better to tax assets than income or sales or usage.

    I am for the tunnel to the extent that it will be levied to people based on their benefits based on assets.

  13. Want to really make it interesting? Add a sizable B&O tax exemption. There is a hatred of B&O taxes among conservatives and might help you get some traction.

    While not perfect, reducing or eliminating taxes on struggling small businesses and adding them to gasoline would be a form of tax shifting – The practice of removing taxes from things you want (jobs, income, commerce, etc…) and taxing the things you want to reduce, such as gasoline sales.

  14. While this would help buoy transportation revenues, it misses those who get an all-electric vehicle. These folks would still get to use the roadways for free, at the expense of the gasoline, diesel, hybrid, etc. drivers. Something like a VMT based on vehicle weight would capture the usage of the all-electric vehicle folks as well, while however gas is taxed – which should be lower with a VMT – would get at the emission side of the equation.

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