By Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno
Maybe we shouldn’t raise the gas tax. In fact, maybe it’s time to get rid of the gas tax altogether.
That might seem like a strange statement coming from advocates like us, who are firmly aligned with the pro-transit, pro-climate justice, pro-investments-in-equity corner of the political landscape. But as we look at the proposed transportation packages in the legislature this session, we are starting to believe that only a truly transformational approach to funding transportation will allow us to address the harm caused by our current system.
What’s wrong with the gas tax? Well, first of all, it’s regressive. You pay the same amount no matter what you can afford, and if you’re wealthy, you’re likely to own a more fuel-efficient vehicle. In fact, these days, you’re likely to own an electric vehicle and pay no gas tax at all. On top of that, as cities become more expensive, you’re more likely to have a long commute if you’re poor.
And the gas tax is receding: Over the last 20 years, gas consumption has not kept pace with population growth. Sooner or
later, this isn’t going to be a reliable revenue stream.
The gas tax is also restricted to funding highways, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, which was enacted eight decades ago in 1944. Every other type of transportation infrastructure, from light rail lines to local bus service, must come from “unrestricted” sources such as car tabs and other vehicle fees—sources of revenue that, thanks to Tim Eyman, have been under constant threat for a generation.
The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent
Currently, less than 4 percent of our transportation spending goes toward non-highway projects. In fact, in the last three state transportation packages, these non-highway investments have received a decreasing percentage of the total funding.
Which leads us to why the gas tax is racist. You’ve heard of redlining rules that kept banks from giving mortgages in Black or brown neighborhoods. The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent. Instead of investing in reliable transit service that would benefit BIPOC communities where people are more likely to be transit-reliant, highway expansion funded by the gas tax directly contributes to increased pollution and negative health outcomes in these same communities.
Over the previous year, Front and Centered and Disability Rights Washington have been conducting listening sessions and interviews with our community members across Washington state, resulting in a report and transportation storymap. We’ve heard so many stories from our communities about how our current transportation system is failing us.
For example, Amanda, from Cowlitz County, shared, “I feel like as a senior in high school I should be able to walk to school on a sidewalk. I have to walk on the road with just a guardrail. It’s scary. I don’t want to get hit by a car on my way to school. This is the reality for other people of color.”
We know that what we are suggesting is a departure from the current transportation consensus, but as we’ve seen throughout the last year, sometimes we need to start thinking about how we can fully dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities.
Currently, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates they have less than half of what they need to keep the current highway system in good repair because our elected leaders would rather use gas tax revenue to build new highways and overpasses. With so much unfunded mitigation and basic preservation need, it is inexcusable to expand the system further.
The cost of preserving our highway system must include the costs of mitigating the harm it creates. But even though it’s possible to spend gas tax revenue for this purpose, the legislature has yet to invest the $3.1 billion estimated needed to build fish culverts, so salmon can get past highways. They have not even begun to talk about funding the $5.7 billion that WSDOT estimates is needed to repair the gaps and barriers created in the pedestrian network by the state highways that cut through our communities. For decades, our legislators have underfunded the preservation work needed to keep our highway and bridges from crumbling. And, given the health impacts of dirty air caused by highways and roads, WSDOT should pair road maintenance with air quality monitoring.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Seattle advocates who opposed the multitude of freeways slated to ring our city engaged in a prolonged battle with highway proponents who wanted to see the gas tax increased to fund the construction of additional highways. For 12 years, highway construction lobbyists held the state education budget hostage until they could win a gas tax increase through the legislature. Understanding this history makes us reconsider the progressive consensus that raising gas taxes is the right
move, and that more funding is always good. More highways, plus more transit; more buses, plus more interchanges.
But what if more isn’t more? What if all the funding that we put into new highways and highway maintenance is actually working against our equity, access, public health, and climate goals? That’s why we think it’s time to turn off the funding faucet to our state highway system.
This is obviously a controversial opinion, as the people who control the faucet are our state legislators, who are more likely than not to have a highway project in their district, a project that they believe will lead to congestion relief and job creation.
On congestion relief, research proves the futility of adding highway capacity because of the very nature of induced demand. But even if you believe that your commute will somehow be improved by more lanes, it’s illogical to lock ourselves into billion-dollar highway widening investments based on data from pre-COVID travel patterns.
And when it comes to jobs, investments in multimodal projects actually create more jobs than highways—jobs that are more likely to go to smaller, women- and minority-owned businesses that may lack the resources to invest in the expensive machinery needed for larger highway projects.
So we need to fix our roads and the impacts they cause. We also need to invest in building the sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus service we’ve neglected for so long. In order to do this, we need new sustainable funding sources that are not regressive, racist, or running out. Alternatives could include a carbon fee, air quality surcharge on the purchase of a new vehicle, luxury vehicle fees, and other sources. These new funding sources are being created with equity baked in. For example, the Washington Strong carbon tax proposal (SB 5373) dedicates 15 percent of revenue from the proposed tax to economic transition assistance for low-income households and workers—and protects revenues from being nabbed for unrelated purposes.
We know that what we are suggesting is a departure from the current transportation consensus, but as we’ve seen throughout the last year, sometimes we need to start thinking about how we can fully dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities. Tinkering around the edges, like throwing a few hundred thousand dollars at pedestrian safety as part of a multi-billion-dollar package, won’t get us any closer to making it safe and accessible to get around our state without a car. We need to stop feeding the highway building machine with funding sources that can only be used to expand the damage it wreaks on
Anna Zivarts directs the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington, which just completed a transportation storymap for Washington State where they interviewed 100+ Washingtonians who can’t and don’t drive about their transportation needs. Anna sits on the Washington State Cooper Jones Active Transportation Council and Autonomous Vehicle Work Group and WSDOT’s Transportation Demand Management Executive Board.
Paulo Nunes-Ueno leads transportation and land use policy for Front and Centered, a coalition of communities of color working toward environmental and climate justice.