OLYMPIA — A new poll showing most voters oppose additional transportation taxes highlights the hurdles lawmakers face when it comes to finding more money for highways and transit.
A Stuart Elway poll of 412 registered voters found that 72 percent oppose a higher gas tax and 62 percent oppose an increase in the car tab. The poll has a margin of error of 5 percentage points, plus or minus.
Those two taxes would provide most of the revenue in a nearly $10 billion transportation plan proposed by House Democrats last month, with the state gas tax already among the highest in the nation, rising to 47.5 cents within five years.
“I think it’s a hard sale to the public,” said Elway, a Seattle pollster. Not only did his poll find strong opposition to new taxes, but also that voters “don’t think there’s that big of a problem.”
The Elway Poll showed 70 percent of the voters, surveyed between Feb. 28 and March 2, rated the state’s transportation system as “satisfactory” or better.
Senate Transportation Committee co-Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the poll reinforced his belief that there’s no need to push through a transportation package this session.
Republicans control the Senate, while Democrats control the House and governor’s office.
“It’s kind of what I’ve been saying all along,” King said. “I don’t think the public is ready to have new taxes put on them.”
House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she wasn’t surprised by the poll, adding it won’t change her mission to do something this session.
“If we made all our decisions based on (polls) we wouldn’t get anything done,” she said.
The Legislature could decide to approve a tax package or send it to voters.
What does Clibborn take away from the survey?
“It tells us that it’s a heavy lift, and I never thought it would be anything but a heavy lift,” she said. Also, “it tells me that you have a lot of educating to do around what a revenue package would get you.”
She noted Elway’s poll did not ask voters about specific projects that would be funded by the increase in taxes. “If you put projects in you’d get a different answer,” she said.
Elway, in his poll, pointed out he did not list projects and said “in theory, such a list would increase support by promising improvements in every part of the state.”
The House Democrats’ plan would plow billions of dollars into highway projects such as extensions of Highways 167 and 509, as well as Interstate 405 lanes, and ferry operations and terminals. It also would provide money to help build a new Columbia River bridge to Portland, widen Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass and reduce Interstate 5 congestion around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The current proposal would increase the state gas tax by 10 cents over five years. Washington currently has the nation’s ninth-highest gas tax.
In addition, it would create a car-tab tax equal to 0.7 percent of a vehicle’s value — $140 for a $20,000 car.
There’s also a $25 sales fee on bicycles worth $500 or more that would raise $1 million over 10 years, a nod to motorists who complain bicyclists don’t pay their fair share.
Republicans have talked about the need for reforms before being willing to discuss additional money for transportation. They see that as possibly a multiyear process.
“What’s important now is we have too many problems,” House GOP Leader Richard DeBolt said. “We have to fix our problems before we can fund anything else. We have to build confidence with the people that we are spending their money correctly.”
House Republicans are expected to come out with proposals later this week.
A coalition of business, labor and environmental groups is pushing the Legislature to advance some transportation package this session.
Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said it’s too early to get worried.
“You never want to see a negative poll. But this debate has just started,” he said. “So I’m not overly concerned about it yet.”