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February 1, 2012 at 4:50 PM

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Could a 3-cent city gas tax be in your future?

Washington cities and counties would gain the power to charge their own gasoline taxes, and increase car-tab collections, under a bill that goes to a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Thursday.

Senate Bill 4306 would amend existing law to allow cities to enact a local gas tax of one, two or three cents per gallon, as described in Section 4 of the bill published Wednesday.

The tax would have to be approved in a ballot measure by city voters. Counties already have similar authority but don't use it. The city and county taxes combined couldn't exceed three cents and must be used for roads, under the state Constitution.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, is sponsoring the measure.

In addition, city and county governments, including King County Metro Transit, could collect a $40 annual car-tab fee without going to the ballot -- up from the $20 ceiling that exists now.

Some two dozen cities, including Seattle as of last year, charge the $20 fee, mostly for street work. Seattle voters last fall rejected a $60 fee to pay for transit, pedestrian, road and streetcar projects, after opponents argued the spending plan was too vague and that the tax fell hardest on low-income car owners.

King County Metro Transit is collecting a temporary, two-year, $20 car tab fee to stave off cuts to several routes.

Also under the bill, cities and counties could add a 1 percent motor-vehicle excise tax, or $100 on a $10,000 vehicle per year, with voter approval.

Ashley Probart, analyst for the Association of Washington Cities, says the revenue ideas have attracted broad interest. All this is on top of whatever state plan emerges from the Legislature.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed boosts in license fees and vehicle-weight fees, as well as a $1.50 per barrel fee on oil refined in Washington state, to support a $3.6 billion program to maintain highways and ferries. Her plan also calls for grants to transit systems and local governments.

Probart suspects that things "will sort themselves out" so voters don't see state and local transportation tax measures at the same time.

"We will be at the table to support a state package as well," he said. Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, is also proposing a controversial gas-tax increase of up to 18 cents a gallon.

A few cities already have a special border-area gas tax of 1 cent, paid largely by Canadian drivers: Blaine, Everson, Nooksack, Point Roberts and Sumas. That tax brought $88,000 to Blaine in 2009, said Probart.

If it gets past the committee cutoff date next week, the proposal might gain traction in Seattle. Way back in 2002, polling by the now-defunct Seattle Monorail Project found that a city gasoline tax -- unavailable at that time -- was the most popular of options presented.

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