Given the impending failure of Proposition 1—the measure meant to save King County Metro from a crippling 17 percent cut—is it now time to reconsider the state's role in transportation funding altogether? The ultimate blame for this failure lies with the state legislature, with it's Republican-led senate, which denied the County the right to adopt more progressive (and more popular) revenue measures. As a result of their failure of leadership, King County had no choice but to propose a regressive, unpopular car tab fee paired with a sales tax increase, and here we are.
This is very much a hare-brained scheme at this point, written more out of sadness and frustration for my home state than any kind of serious intellectual exercise, but perhaps we can take a page out of Tim "I hate government" Eyman's book. People in Washington have been shown in the past to have something of a libertarian streak, so maybe it's time to turn that impulse to a pro-transit purpose and revert transportation funding authority to the county level. Local control! Local control! According to WSDOT, about half of fuel tax funds already go to cities and counties, so why not send them the rest, too?
Not all funding, perhaps, but most of it. The state has a built-out network of interstates and highways, and any additional spending is generally just (extremely expensive) tinkering at the edges. They do rn the state ferry system, which is justifiable and worthy of funding, but most everything else they do could be done by counties. Giving most of that money directly to the counties would probably result in less waste on mega-projects and more thoughtful, high impact expenditures on transit and active transportation resources.
The initiative, as I imagine it, would ask voters to decide whether all (or most) gas tax revenues should be diverted, after collection, directly to the city/county governments' departments of transportation. It would maintain all existing revenue sources, but divert those related to transportation away from the state. It would also transfer the authority to raise or lower gas taxes to the county level (if this is legal). It might also transfer authority to set other revenue sources for transportation (if this is legal), but I have a feeling this might reduce support for the initiative, as it could scare some people into thinking their local government would go crazy on the revenue proposals.
The main question for me is in the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, since it's invulnerable to citizen initiative. It says the following:
All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes.
That special fund is interesting, but on the face of it I don't see why you couldn't give the cities and counties 90 percent of gas tax revenue if they're already receiving 50 percent. The Amendment also says that funds must be used for highway purposes, so it probably couldn't be used for things like new buses, transit tunnels, or light rail. But this Seattle Transit Blog article notes that "highway purposes" includes the "construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets," so it sounds like anything from regular maintenance to marking out new bus lanes could be acceptable—even bus stops and real-time arrival signs could be justified under a liberal interpretation of "streets."
This is all just musing at this point, and I'm far from a legal scholar on this or any other issue, so I'm really curious to hear what others think. Is this legally and technically feasible? Even if it is, is it a good idea, or would it just make things worse? Could it have some terrible consequence that I'm not seeing? Would it even pass? What else could be done in lieu of this solution that would improve on the status quo? Let me know what you think in the comments!