Steve Pierce of WSDOT was able to get back to me with more precise numbers about the STP and CMAQ funds that state and local government could shift to transit:

Washington state was apportioned $930 million of federal STP and CMAQ funds from 2007-2011. About 65% of these funds are sub-allocated to MPOs, i.e. PSRC. If the MPO selects and programs a transit project, the lead agency may request a transfer from FHWA to FTA to ensure the efficient delivery and transit expertise necessary to complete the project. At this time, there is no legislation limiting the amount of funds that can be transferred to FTA. The majority of the $104 million is associated with projects from the PSRC.

In other words, state and local government had the opportunity to divert a further $826m over 5 years from highways to transit. A chunk of that decisionmaking resides with our very own Puget Sound Regional Council.

To come back to my original point, to de facto fund transit with a state gas tax increase would require a bit of coordination between PSRC and the legislature, where PSRC agrees to shift funds to transit and Olympia decides to backfill the road projects with gas tax. But there is no constitutional barrier to doing so.

Note: the general question of whether transit should be subsidized is off-topic.

39 Replies to “More on the Gas Tax Limit”

  1. It seems like this whole discussion is kind of pointless. Gas tax revenue is decreasing and likely will drop off even faster as higher mileage cars and plug-in hybrids proliferate. Electric cars are subject to a flat-fee, “all you can eat” pricing model that seems a bit insane. (If I were to buy an electric car, I’d pay more in road taxes than I do now on my Prius, for example, but I could just as easily double my miles driven for no additional cost other than relatively cheap electricity and tires).

    Tolls, especially congesting pricing/variable tolls, seem like a better model going forward. We don’t have a road capacity issue, we have a peak road capacity issue.

    1. Are you referring to the $100/yr tax on electric vehicles? Also apparently electric vehicles have the benefit of a sales/use tax exemption until 2015. So, substantial savings there…

    2. Velo,

      Then let’s jack up the tax. We’re far from stopping the use of gasoline, and steep decline would be a great problem to have. In the meantime, we can fund a post-petroleum infrastructure.

      1. The big oil companies will kick and scream and sue and sabotage and make a big deal about it to make sure that what happens is NOT that. It’s in their greedy nature.

      2. Already happening:

        Hydrogen-powered cars from automakers like Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai may be mainstream by 2015

        Mr. Vijayendra Rao, Research Manager at Frost & Sullivan Automotive & Transportation Practice, Asia Pacific said “The OEMs are prepared for a 2015 commercialization of the FCEV market. Key Japanese auto OEMs such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan and South Korea’s Hyundai//Kia are preparing their FCEV models for commercialization.” As a result, the number of fuel cell vehicles in the two countries is expected to increase from 600 in 2011 to 58,100 in 2020.

      3. Hooray, 0.0008% of the population will have Hydrogen vehicles, problem solved! Go about your driving, nothing to worry about here, folks!

      4. Hydrogen cars are a joke, and a bad one. There are already more pure electric cars on the road than there will *ever* be hydrogen cars.

        The reason is that hydrogen is not naturally occuring. And as an intermediate energy storage method, it sucks compared to electricity (let along magnetism).

      5. Your questions answered: hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

        What advantages do hydrogen-powered vehicles have over battery electric vehicles given the current state of the two technologies?

        The key advantages of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) over battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are the range, refuelling time and, for vehicles with the range to which we have become accustomed, efficiency. Efficiency is tightly coupled to weight, and batteries are a heavy means of storing energy, so as the range for which a battery electric vehicle is designed goes up, the efficiency goes down, rapidly. There is also a recurrent argument that it makes more sense to use electricity to charge a BEV than electrolyse water to fuel a hydrogen car. This is very misleading in that almost all hydrogen comes from natural gas rather than from electrolysis and this process is 75% efficient, whereas the UK grid figure for electricity from natural gas, considered our cleanest form of fossil generated electricity, is 49%. However, BEVs and FCEVs should be seen as complementary. We need a mix of fuels and powertrains in the future, addressing different needs, rather than a versatile ‘one size fits all’ solution that does everything inefficiently; BEVs are great for short range applications but it makes no sense to drive from London to Edinburgh in one.

  2. While this could work, wouldn’t doing this be politically untenable, i.e, subverting the spirit of the law as written on a technicality.

    I think this would embolden anti-tax critics even more as politicians would be seen as trying to work around the layperson interpretation of the law. It strikes me as a dirty tactic regardless of the financial outcome for transit. There’s still people out there that think the gas tax all goes into the general fund and doesn’t get used for just roads, doing this definitely feeds their sense(however false) that their money is not being handled well.

    Politicians should be working to fund these projects and convince the people to support funding these projects on their own merit as investments for the common good, not using a court ruling for a diversion of funds.

    Like the original article stated, approve an additional tax to fund transit and pass it on that alone if the court ruling allows it.

    1. I’m not so sure it’d be politically untenable. It’s already happening quite a bit, just not as much as transit advocates would like. It’s probably a bit too technical to really be a prominent issue that anti-transit folks can rally around, and isn’t particularly unreasonable when you consider that a large chunk of FHWA revenue is from the general fund, not federal gas taxes.

    2. Subvert the will of the voters in the ’50’s? Laws are not written in stone, nor should they be. It’s a different world now, with global warming, sprawl, a sick sound, and new transportation options. If it’s still the will of the voters, they can clarify exactly what the meant using the democratic process.

      1. I think what I’m saying is the ends don’t justify the means. Diverting money based on some court ruling in violation of the original intent of the law is no different than Mitt Romney paying only 13 percent on his wealth because he can take all the deductions and store money in offshore accounts “legally”. It doesn’t make it right.

        Work to amend the state’s constitution or pass another dedicated tax somehow instead of doing an end run around it.

        Regardless of whether its too technical or not, citizens really don’t like it when they think their tax money is mismanaged. It comes back to bite you later when you go ask for more funding authority.

      2. I think it’s important to point out that the entire job of the judiciary is to interpret the intent and the letter of legislature. Saying that this is some sort of loophole is placing your judgment over theirs.

      3. Matt the Engineer is right.

        If the law clearly allows a result we don’t like, the answer is to change the law, not to condemn people who are following it.

        Mitt Romney was not wrong for paying a 13% effective tax rate when it was clearly the correct result under the current tax code. Instead, his low effective rate is a symptom of the need for substantial tax reform.

        Likewise, if transit haters don’t like the possibility of effectively diverting gas tax funds this way, they need to agitate in favor of a statute that prevents it.

      4. I’d rather just see more open,good and transparent governance that’s easy to follow instead of playing accounting shell games to get the result that everyone wants.

      5. Then the right thing to do is to write laws that make accounting shell games harder. You can’t expect people to do the right thing by magic.

    1. and here’s why:

      It muddies up the political/financial landscape.

      Since we’re required to vote for transit funding for either operations or capital projects, and not for the major road projects (not the hazy DBT vote, either, but a defined project with funding/tolling/cost benefit laid out) this makes transit initiatives receive the wrath of the anti-tax voters.

      UNLESS, you advocate for doing away with transit referendums and initiatives, and just let the powers that be decide.

      Then I can go for this plan.


      Put all projects; Road, Transit, Ports, Aiports… etc. up to a public vote.
      and restrict the gas tax to only being spent on the upkeep of the road surface quality. NO EXPANSION or UPGRADES. And have a vote on that, too.

  3. I think that diverting funds to public transit is a great idea. Like VeloBusDriver said,

    “We don’t have a road capacity issue, we have a peak road capacity issue.”

    Isn’t that where traditional fixed route service fits best? If there will be a lot of people going in one direction at one time, lets build mass transit service there, that runs only in the peak period direction. Isn’t that the idea behind the sounder?

    Or should we kill off public transportation, invest trillions in highways, and be bought by China?

    Well, that’s what Puyallup wants anyway. Just take a look at the Prop 1 results for Puyallup. Cars cost less in Puyallup, but AT the cost of everyone else’s transportation.

    After all, isn’t public transit just poor homeless people mooching off our hard earned tax dollars? (note the sarcasm)

    That’s what car dealers and big oil want you to think.

  4. I think you are missing an important point in these posts about the 18th amendment. Certainly the legislature could choose to spend more of its transportation budget on transit if it choose to do so. I am glad you are making this point. But that doesn’t mean that the 18th amendment is unimportant. If the legislature had tried to fund the deep bore tunnel with money that could have been used for transit then I don’t think that Seattle would have accepted the deal.

    But having some money that can’t be spent on transit can be very useful for the highway enthusiasts they want to build a road but the people would rather have the money spent on transit.

    1. For highway enthusiasts, they don’t need to worry, because there will always be some money for highways. Transit enthusiasts, however, need to be worried. But highway enthusiasts don’t need to be anti-transit, because transit runs on highways, too (Until Link Light Rail takes over express service entirely).

      Because building more highways helps transport people who cannot afford cars, children that can’t get drivers’ licenses, and college students that cannot afford gas.

      If you take a look at big cities that are already transit reliant, you also see that there is also a ton of traffic on the highways as well (Los Angeles, etc.), so they don’t need to worry here, either.

      One thing’s for sure: if transit wasn’t here, the highways of these cities would collapse under the weight of all those cars. And that’s something that no highway enthusiast wants. Neither is a 125 mile long traffic jam.

    2. “building more highways helps transport people who cannot afford cars”

      In an inefficent way. Buses are usually treated like “just another car” and are subject to congestion, traffic lights, and exits a few blocks away from transit centers. This in spite of the fact that a car usually holds 1.5 people while a bus usually holds 12 or sometimes 50 people. So if transit is to use roads, it should get absolute priority over cars including its own lane and real TSP. But in the real (American and Seattle) world, that only happens in a small fraction of cases. Most of the time ordinary transit’s ROW gets watered down as much as BRT usually does.

  5. Transit (and I mean all our agencies combined) should be working to reduce expenses as robustly as Martin is working to increase tax revenue. Taking operating costs as a given, then running around trying to raise rates, or divert funds from one mode to another as this scheme tries to justify is bass-ackwards.
    Velo mentioned tolling as the ‘ticket’ but failed to point out how grossly inefficient tolling is to raising revenue. The state gets a lot less of the $1.00 toll than you would imagine. Some Texans are laughing all the way to their banks with the rest after expenses.
    Find ways to get rid of the $50 commute subsidies first, then come talk to me about more raiding parties on the pot hole crews.

    1. Oops! Sometimes I’m just full of crap – this is one of them. I recalled that the state was only keeping about half of all the toll revenue collected, but fact checking my own post says it’s not as bad as I thought. WSDOT ‘520 Toll Revenue’ will bring up a Net Revenue forecast showing the state will keep about 70%, but couldn’t find anything current except at 6 months into tolling revenues are ahead of projections.
      The best news is that transit is up about 10% across the bridge and carpools are up a whopping 18%.
      Now that’s a mode shift I can get behind.
      Does anyone have a feel for collection costs associated with other taxes, such as gas tax, MVET, property, etc. It has to be fairly low, but I’m swearing off guessing for a while :)

    2. “Reducing expenses” is abstract.

      What concrete steps do you suggest?

      To be clear, this is not personally directed at you. But often when people say that what they actually mean is “cut driver salaries and benefits.” OK, fine… but when the economy was halfway decent, Metro had trouble recruiting enough drivers to operate all the service at the current pay levels. Don’t forget that you can’t hire the same people to be drivers that you can to be burger-flippers. Or maybe you can, but then you get a safety record like First Transit’s — worse in exclusively highway service than Metro is with half its service operating on dense city streets.

      I’m sure ST and Metro would welcome other suggestions for expense reduction.

      1. Hire more robots? :-) Uh, I mean, automate everything?…

        If the automated cars become legal (and I don’t think they will), then go ahead and make automated buses and automated trains.

      2. 1. Reduce the amount of OT paid to full time drivers by increasing the ability to use a flexible workforce that matches the daily workload better. I would allow PT drivers more work, rather than run cuts that mostly keep PT’s at the bottom of the food chain, except a very few senior PT’ers.
        2. When irregular work is needed, allow both full time and PT drivers the ability to fill it, and give the window person and schedulers more flexability to fill work from a logical stand point rather than adhering to a few archaic work rules because the contract says so. Local 587 and Metro are joined at the hip, and should look for ways to serve the public better. That means collectively keeping costs down.
        3. Reign in the costs on qualifying on routes. Some PT’er move to all the bases just to earn qualification time (paid) on routes they will never use. With several hundred routes, at a couple of hours each, that’s maybe 10 grand x 1000 PT’ers or $10 Mil. Require PT’s to choose a base after a period and stay with it for a year or so.
        4. Eliminate one shake-up per year with all the associated costs of printing, scheduling,Hastus, driver training, etc.
        5. Quite printing red serial numbers on each and every transfer as if they were federal reserve notes. Name me one time they were ever used for anything (like theft control), and individual numbering of anything greatly increases the cost of the document.
        It’s late tonight, so just 5 will have to do for now.
        Thanks for asking David.

      3. Mic,
        Instead of your #5 I’d do like CT, ET, and ST and eliminate paper transfers entirely. If you want a free transfer you need to get an ORCA already.

        I’d also make the ORCA fare cost less than the cash fare. Cash handling and change fumbling both have operational costs.

  6. From a political standpoint, I can see two arguments for increasing the gas tax and using the money for transit: First, a gas tax is a sin tax. Gasoline consumption causes global warming as well as smog and other health problems. We should increase the gas tax to European/Canadian levels. What we use the money for is unimportant (use it fund schools, health care, etc.)

    Second, as mentioned earlier, transit reduces car traffic. In many cases, the cheapest way to reduce traffic (or at least stop it from getting worse) is to invest in transit instead of investing in roads. This sure seems like it fits the spirit of the state constitutional amendment.

    Whether folks can make that case and actually push through some significant changes is a different matter. It is nice to know that it won’t take a change to the state constitution.

  7. If “transit” includes bicycle tracks and more pedestrian facilities, then I’m all for this. Citizens polled have said they want as much as 25% of roadway monies diverted to bike/ped facilities.

    1. If you think about it, sidewalks are really a car facility — before cars were allowed to take over the roads, people walked down the road. Now that we CAN’T walk down the road because of the speeding cars, we need sidewalks.

      Sidewalk funding is, frankly, what road funding was in 1850.

      1. I thought the sidewalks in 1850 were to avoid walking through the horse poop in the streets. Maybe not but sidewalks certainly predate the automobile by hundreds of years.

  8. I like it. Another similar option could be to use a state gas tax increase to backfill local city and county transportation agency budgets so they can reallocate their general fund money to bike/pedestrian/transit projects (or education or affordable housing or whatever). Local agencies today spend a lot of unrestricted property tax revenue on road projects that could be reallocated away from roads without violating the constitutional requirements.

    1. *crickets*
      I feel like this is a pretty legitimate idea. I’d be curious to hear people’s thoughts.

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