Sean Swope Commentary: Rising Gas Costs Brutal on Communities Like Lewis County

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Washington state residents currently pay 49.4 cents per gallon in state taxes and an additional 18.4% in federal taxes at the pump. That’s currently the fourth-highest gas tax in the nation.

If all three currently-proposed bills at the Legislative level pass this session (Cap-and-trade: 18 cents per gallon; Low carbon field standard: 3 cents per gallon and up to 18 cents by 2030; and House Transportation package: 31 cents per gallon of gas plus carbon tax), that 49.4 cents will climb up to 52 cents more per gallon by 2030, for a whopping total of $1.01 or so per gallon in taxes at the pump, making us potentially the highest gas tax rate in the entire U.S.

But who really gets punished when fuel prices rise? Who feels the real pinch? It isn’t just about commuters and working people who pay more just to sustain their income, though that’s a big one, too.

When fuel prices go up, local businesses such as Sorenson Transport Company and Lund Trucking Company see their overhead go up. And, in turn, profits either decrease or transportation prices go up. If transportation prices go up, the cost of everything from groceries to households increases in response.

Farmers and the agricultural industry have to spend more money to get their products to market. Freight trains — fueled by diesel — aren’t safe either. Freight transport across the board is affected. Public transportation costs increase, including subsidized transit. Even airplane fuel and, therefore, ticket prices go up.

What about families who have limited income or impacted by unemployment — or reduced hours — due to COVID-19 over the past year who travel almost exclusively by car? Families who have had their leisure and recreation opportunities already limited by COVID-19 since before last summer? It costs more to go on simple day trips or weekend getaways. Increasing fuel costs rob families of memories.

And, if families aren’t traveling or visiting neighboring communities, who is losing out on money then? Communities that depend on tourism as a staple of revenue, that’s who. Fewer tourism dollars mean fewer jobs and fewer “heads in beds” (lodging tax) dollars generated by hotels, motels, vacation rentals and campgrounds. Less foot travel from visitors means fewer diners and fewer shoppers in downtown cores.

Hiking fuel taxes on Washington residents who already pay the fourth-highest tax per gallon at the pump in the nation isn’t innovative — it’s over the top.

For communities like Lewis County, bringing an average of $46,000 per household per year, it’s absolutely brutal.

Some would say that trying to train behavior through taxes — discouraging people from driving by making it more expensive — is a good thing, for the sake of our environment.

But, in the realm of transportation, Lewis County’s public transportation infrastructure isn’t developed enough yet to meet the rising need for rural transit options. While local Twin Transit is making leaps and bounds toward its goals to meet this growing demand, residents in Lewis County are largely required to depend on fuel-powered vehicles until this infrastructure catches up. Residents in urban settings often already have other transportation options.

So rising fuel prices also end up disproportionately affecting residents — and, again, especially low-income residents — to a greater degree.

Low-income residents often cannot access the electric and hybrid vehicle market. That market is still so new that pre-owned inventory is limited, and even used electric and hybrid vehicles are often beyond many household budgets.

And, while a few electric vehicle charging stations exist locally and more alternative fueling stations are planned here in the near future, even that infrastructure has yet to catch up.

So how can we support our environment and transportation needs without making life harder for (primarily) low-income residents in rural communities, like Lewis County? What are the other options?

When considering proposed legislation, Washington state saw incredible revenue growth during the pandemic. Are fuel taxes really the best mechanism to raise funds for transportation given that revenue increase? Are there other sources we should be examining before putting this on everyday average citizens?

And, OK, let’s say (for the sake of argument) that taxes truly are the best mechanism available. Can we phase in these fuel taxes on a separate schedule for areas with underdeveloped public transit? One that ties taxes with public transportation benchmarks that incentivize public transit infrastructure development? In a way that champions and supports green energy?

Local Twin Transit is already exploring alternatively fueled buses including electric, solar and hydrogen. Can additional funds be allotted at the state level to help our rural public transit system catch up before taxes take effect on our most vulnerable citizens?

I think it’s important to ask ourselves these questions before we stomach another 10, 25 or up to a 50-some cent increase at the pump.

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Sean Swope is a Lewis County commissioner.

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