Voters balk at sales tax hike for roads

By Beth Silver
For The Herald

Olympia, WA - 12/11/03 - Voters say they are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a year to fix traffic congestion, but not if it comes in the form of a sales tax increase, according to a poll commissioned by regional transportation planners.

The poll of 500 likely voters in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties is the latest word politicians on the Regional Transportation Investment District have received that their plan to fix highways and bridges could be doomed if it's placed on the November 2004 ballot.

A half-a-cent sales tax increase is the primary means the regional board proposes for raising $14 billion to make highway, bridge, rail and freight improvements.

The board, which meets today in Tacoma, is now expected to delay putting the issue before voters until 2005.

Given the poll's results, lack of agreement on the projects that should be included and an unrelated education initiative that would compete for sales tax money, some board members said they weren't sure a transportation plan would pass next year.

"Going to 2005 is extremely important, because we don't have an extra opportunity to get it right," Pierce County Council member Shawn Bunney said.

Only 33 percent of those polled said they favored a transportation package that would include the sales tax increase. Sixty-five percent said they were against it.

"We always knew that was the Achilles' heel," said the board's chairman, Snohomish County Council member Gary Nelson of Edmonds.

Instead of a higher sales tax, 56 percent of those polled said they would prefer to pay for transportation improvements with a $30 increase in the motor vehicle excise tax for each $10,000 of car value. In addition, 49 percent said they would be willing to pay tolls on improved or new highways and bridges.

The survey, conducted Nov. 21-23 by Democrat pollster Don McDonough and Republican pollster Bob Moore, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The Legislature created the regional board last year and gave it the authority to ask voters at the ballot box to raise sales and gas taxes, motor vehicle fees and charge tolls. In September, the board adopted a draft plan that would raise the sales tax 0.4 percentage points. The plan also includes a $75 vehicle license fee, a 0.3 percentage point increase in the motor vehicle excise tax, and a 2.8 cents-per-gallon gas tax boost.

Nelson said he hopes to ask the Legislature this winter to give the board the authority to add a sales tax on gas instead of just raising the sales tax in general.

But Bunney said the regional board may have to work within the constraints legislators agreed to last year.

"Is it perfect now? No. Is it workable? Yes, it is if the leadership will make this a priority. I don't want to waste 10 years debating a better tool," Bunney said.

The board was supposed to agree to a list of road projects today. With the poll results to mull and lack of agreement on projects for King County, Bunney said a vote on the list isn't likely until February.

Beth Silver is a reporter with the Tacoma News Tribune: 206-467-9845 or


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