Governor signs gas tax increase, transportation package

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a package of bills yesterday that will increase the gas tax by 9.5 cents per gallon over four years to pay for $8.5 billion in transportation improvements.

The first gas-tax increase, a 3-cent boost, will take effect in July. Before signing the bills into law, Gregoire took a bus tour during the Puget Sound area's rush hour, visiting transportation hot spots in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

As her bus cruised west on Highway 520, where thousands of commuters idle away the hours every afternoon crossing Lake Washington, Gregoire acknowledged that it's not the best time to raise gas taxes, with gas prices hitting near-record highs.

"So when is a good time?" Gregoire asked. "There isn't. You either do it, or watch the [Alaskan Way] Viaduct pancake or 520 go down in the next 77-mile-per-hour wind. What the public expects, fundamentally, from government is safety."

The transportation package will pay for 270 projects around the state. Many of the largest projects are in the Seattle area: $2 billion to begin replacing the viaduct, which is in danger of collapsing in the next earthquake, and $500 million for the aging Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington. Opponents of the package complained that Eastern Washington taxpayers will be footing the bill for Seattle projects.

But Gregoire noted the package includes projects in every corner of the state. When she visited Pullman on Friday, she said, she told local leaders about plans to replace an old bridge.

"There isn't a community I can go to where something isn't being done," Gregoire said.

She also noted that those two megaprojects will be only partly funded by the statewide tax — more local taxes will be needed if the projects are to get built.

The transportation bill and accompanying gas tax passed after an 11th-hour turnaround in the recently concluded legislative session. The package failed in the House the day before the end of the session, but after intense lobbying by Gregoire and the business community, it passed on the last day of the session.

Gregoire signed another bill yesterday that won't have the direct consumer impact of the gas tax but could make a huge difference in the way the state handles transportation issues. The new law makes the transportation secretary report to the governor instead of the state Transportation Commission, and it gives the secretary more power.

"It's going to strengthen our ability to bring leadership to the problems," Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said. "We're approaching these issues with a political as well as a technical voice."

Gregoire said the change has been 60 years in the making.

"As long as the governor is going to be blamed for everything that goes wrong with transportation, why not be responsible?" Gregoire said.