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September QuickThrottle Column

Well, I'm back in the desert after spending six weeks in Utah with the family. It's good to be home, and it's starting to cool down!  YAY!  It's getting to be almost the middle of September already too, and I'm coming up on a year being gone from Seattle. Time has flown for sure.  Here is my September column in Quick Throttle -- this time looking at the exciting topic of highway funding in an era of declining gas tax revenue because of all the damn Priuseseses, Leaves and Teslassssss (as well as spandex wearing bicycle riders) and their ilk who don't pay any gas tax or pay very little.  Exactly how are we supposed to maintain roads when no one is paying gas tax? This column also marks the start of my EIGHTH year writing it.  Can't believe they've let me spout off this long!  Thanks Mike!

Summer means its road construction season and boy are they busy. The weather has been glorious this summer – so far – and so have the road construction projects. But the roads certainly aren’t getting any less crowded, and certainly they aren’t getting any easier to ride on. Chuckholes, uneven pavement, poor lane markings, and too many cars mean that when they do get around to repairing things, the repairs don’t last and the construction period often makes things worse. Such is the nature of road work in the Northwest (and everywhere for that matter – back down in California it’s not much better either.)

Riding is about the freedom to escape, to wander down a road and get lost. But we must have roads to wander down in the first place, and roads take money. Part of the problem stems from too many cars on too few lanes of roadway. The northwest – at least the Puget Sound region, has drastically outgrown the road system, and as much as we’d like to, the combination of terrain, the political climate, and a lack of money will prevent any major congestion relief work, save for the rebuild of I-5 through Pierce County along Joint Base Lewis/McChord. Even the much-vaunted tunnel under Seattle won’t increase capacity, in fact it decreases it, but the combination of tolls and lack of downtown exits will I think smooth out through traffic some.

Face it. Politically, and in Western Washington particularly, expanding road capacity is viewed as downright evil. But we still must maintain what roads we’ve got, and while the political will may be there, the funds really aren’t. We can argue until the cows come home about whether the state and cities are spending their limited road construction dollars wisely (they aren’t), or whether they deserve more money or not (they do, if we want to be able to drive.)  But the reason we are even having this discussion is because the main source of funding for road construction is shrinking faster than an ice cube on a sidewalk on a hot summer day.

The major source of road construction and maintenance funding is the gas tax. In Washington, we are paying .49 cents per gallon in gas tax. That’s two bucks every time I fill up my Dyna, and a whopping $12 dollars every time I fill up my Hummer. In the land where the Prius, Leaf, and Tesla’s driven by enviro-elitists are kings, I’m overpaying for my share of the roads for sure. Electric cars, and hybrids don’t pay any gas tax, or at best a marginal amount compared to their share of the maintenance and construction costs of the roads they are driving on. Let alone bicycle riders who demand entire lanes but don’t pay a penny towards construction and maintenance for them. With the Prius the most popular car in Western Washington, that’s a lot of lost tax revenue.

Note I said lost revenue. It’s just that, lost. Although the “progressive” crowd won’t see it that way. But if they can say that choosing not to tax something, like say bottled water or soda pop is a “tax giveaway” (thus assuming all revenue belongs to the state first), then we can certainly use “lost revenue” to describe the amount of road funding that is not being paid by electric vehicle and hybrid drivers and bicycle riders. “Oh, but we are saving the environment so we should be rewarded” they say with a holier-than-though smirk as they drive on a road us riders and drivers of gasoline powered vehicles pay for.

There is another option though – one that will certainly put them into the camp of paying their fair share of the roads they are driving on. Changing the gas tax and moving to a “Road User Charge”.  Both Oregon and Washington are headed down paths of experimenting and seeing if this is a fairer way to collect the amount needed to keep the road infrastructure passable. In the past this was not an idea I took a liking to, but being back in Washington for the summer and surrounded by swarms of Priuses, or Prii or whatever we call multiples of those damn Toyotas, I’m beginning to think this might be a good idea. Maybe at least for those vehicles who don’t pay any gas tax.  And depending on what kind of a rate is set, it might be a good idea for motorcycle riders as well. After all we are most certainly overpaying for our share of the road given the amount of road real-estate a bike takes up, and the miniscule wear and tear a bike puts on the road. A license fee for bicycles would help a little as well, and only fair.

The state is a long way from figuring out any and imposing a program – like how much per mile, and are things like vehicle weight, engine size, number of wheels, etc. factored into the amount. Right now they are just trying to figure out how to measure it and whether it might even be a good way – or even a fairer way -- to replace a gas tax. But you can help if you are so inclined.

The state is seeking up to 2000 people to be involved in a pilot project test and to provide input in this process. It’s a good way for you to have your voice heard – whether the rates are fair and just, is the privacy of data collected a concern, and how will it be collected, and what things should be considered in all those areas. You can sign up to get more information and to perhaps be chosen for the pilot project by visiting the state’s special web site for this project:  https://waroadusagecharge.org.  They will be setting up the pilot project late in the fall of this year, and expect to start later this year.

If I were still a permanent resident of the Evergreen State I’d probably be taking part – and I’d bet not a lot of motorcyclists will be signing up. However, I’ll be headed back to the desert about the time all this gets rolling.  But I’ll be watching the results and how it evolves, because, like it or not, the days of the gas tax I’m sure are numbered. If we want to keep riding, we’ll have to figure out something, and we as riders, should have a seat at the table.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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