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It's a nickel! First gas tax rise since 1990

Drivers can expect to fork over another nickel a gallon in gas taxes by this July now that the state Legislature has approved a decade’s worth of transportation projects.

The package, approved just before the regular 105-day session concluded April 27, will next be considered by Gov. Gary Locke, who is expected to sign it.

The state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1990, will get bumped by 5 cents a gallon in July, raising the total to 28 cents a gallon.

“It’s been a long 105 days, but I think we did accomplish some good things,” said Sen. Bob Oke, a Port Orchard Republican serving on the Highways and Transportation Committee. “We’ll start transportation construction as soon as possible.”

Not even anti-tax guru Tim Eyman’s threat to ensure a voter-veto of transportation tax increases could sway many lawmakers’ jubilant feelings about the overall package.

“I am really feeling positive we made some real progress,” said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, who originally voted against the package but supported it in the final vote. “These projects mean jobs in the state of Washington and in our area. That is always good for the economy.”

Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, said writing a bi-partisan transportation package this session was “no mean feat.”

The effort came just months after the resounding defeat of Referendum 51, a larger transportation plan that asked voters to approve a 9-cent increase in the gas tax.

This pared down transportation plan approved by legislators over the weekend is a $4.2 billion, 10-year transportation funding package that relies on other tax increases, not just gas tax hikes.

It hinges on a 15 percent gross-weight fee increase for commercial trucks — not motor homes — a 0.3 percent sales tax on motor vehicles and an optional $20 fee for vehicle owners who want to keep their existing license plate number during a time of renewal. The state requires vehicle owners to secure new license plates every seven years.

But the package has its detractors too, including Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo.

The package funds foot ferry service from Vashon to downtown Seattle for the next two years, but only funds the Bremerton passenger ferry through September.

“This is the most disappointed I’ve been in four sessions,” she said.

Woods worries about the taxes in the package, in addition to the taxes local voters will be asked to pay to continue service from Kitsap County after September.

Kitsap Transit plans to ask voters this fall for increases in the sales tax and car-tab fees to fund foot ferry service from Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth to downtown Seattle.

But Sheldon, for one, pins her hopes for ferry service on Kitsap Transit’s plans.

“It is a big opportunity because we in Kitsap will have the ability to put together a passenger-only-ferry program that will serve us,” Sheldon said. “I hope we can get the voters to see the picture, that this is our opportunity to design a program that will serve this county from Kingston to Bremerton to Southworth. I’m excited about it.”

Kitsap Transit had asked the Legislature for $5 million in start-up funding, and Sheldon said that amount was requested, in the event a ballot measure in Kitsap was successful.

“But we didn’t get it,” she said.

Lawmakers voting in favor of the package said Vashon commuters don’t have the same choices available to Bremerton ferry users.

If foot ferry service at Vashon ended, commuters would be forced to board auto ferries bound for Fauntleroy in West Seattle and, from there, take the bus or drive a car to work.

Those extra steps add to traffic issues in West Seattle and much longer and possibly costlier commutes.

Meanwhile, Bremerton ferry users can ride auto ferries to Seattle in lieu of the foot ferries.

The package does allocate $264 million for the purchase of four new auto ferry vessels to replace the 1927-era steel electric boats, according to Oke.

“That is going to help us in the long term because we will do what we can to make sure one comes to Bremerton,” Sheldon said.

“It’s high time these were replaced,” Lantz said. “We’ve preserved them well, but to have four ferries built in 1927... think about what a car built in 1927 looks like.”

According to Oke, the package includes $339 million for projects around the Nalley Valley, Tacoma Dome and Tacoma Narrows Bridge areas.

Projects include widening the bridges across the valley, adding lanes on state Route 16 as it approaches the Narrows Bridge and implementing safety improvements around the Tacoma Dome area.

Also included is $11 million to help complete the widening of state Route 304 from the Bremerton Ferry Terminal out toward Gorst, and funds to continue safety improvements at the Burley-Olalla intersection.

Senate sources say $15 million is included in the budget to help complete the interchange project to connect state routes 3 and 303.

Another $2.3 million is included to continue work on state Route 305 from the Poulsbo City limits to Bond Road. The 1.5-mile stretch is to be widened and bike lanes added.

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