Among the many stories I failed to find the time to comment on last week was a task force report that recommended spending an additional $21 billion over the next ten years to help close a backlog of deferred maintenance on our state's roads, bridges and ferries. That's in addition to the 9.5 cent gas tax increase passed in 2005, which has already been fully committed and bonded out.
So why the huge transportation backlog, and why the need, as the task force suggests, to raise the gas tax by as much as 20 cents a gallon? Well, to understand that, you need only look at a graph I drew up back at HA during the last gas tax debate, charting the tax in both nominal and inflation adjusted dollars over time:
Sure, this is a six-year-old chart projecting inflation four years into the future, but regardless, it's clear to see that even after tax increases in 2002 and 2005, adjusted for inflation, the gas tax is still well below historical highs. Because the gas tax is levied as a fixed dollar-value per gallon, rather than as a percentage of the sales price, the value of the tax is gradually eaten away by inflation unless the tax is periodically increased… which is exactly what the Legislature has routinely done since the tax was first implemented in 1921. Indeed, one of the reasons the recent round of tax hikes seemed so shocking, is that the Legislature failed to raise the tax from 1991 through 2002, allowing real revenues per gallon to fall near an all-time low. It is no wonder that during that time, maintainance was deferred, and our transportation infrastructure was allowed to slip into its current state of gradual decay.
The fact is, the true reason we have such a huge transportation backlog is that a generation of Washingtonians declined to pony up the dollars necessary to maintain the infrastructure previous generations ponied up to build. Simple as that. We've been living off past investments, while refusing to invest in the future.
Elected officials may seek to sugar-coat it, but as a state, we've simply been cheap and lazy.