Legislature doubles gas tax, repeals property tax levy for highways, and moves highway operations from the Department of Public Works to a State Highway Engineer in February and March 1923.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/28/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7232
In February and March 1923, the Washington State Legislature passes several important laws affecting highways. It continues to shift the cost of road-building from property owners to road users by repealing the property tax levy for the public highway fund and doubling the one-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to two cents. It gives complete control of highway maintenance to the state and transfers highway operations from the Department of Public Works to the newly created position of State Highway Engineer.

Gas Tax to Pay for Roads

From the time the Highway Department was created in 1905, property tax levies produced much of the revenue for state highway construction and maintenance. However, reliance on property taxes made it difficult to keep pace with the rising demand for roads as automobile use increased. In 1921 the state began taxing the gasoline those automobiles used. 

The increase in the gasoline tax to two cents per gallon, which took effect on January 1, 1924, combined with automobile license fees, raised $12 million for the Motor Vehicle Fund in the 1923-1924 budget biennium. This allowed the Legislature to repeal the one mill levy on property for the public highway fund, although other highway levies remained in force 

State to Fix Roads

The Legislature also changed how motor vehicle funds were allocated. Before 1923, motor vehicle fees in the highway maintenance fund were credited to counties and spent by the county commissioners under state supervision. Beginning with the 1923 legislation, all primary highway maintenance appropriations were spent directly by the state Highway Department, giving the Department full control over maintenance.

The 1923 Legislature also ended the two-year experiment in which the Highway Department was a division of the Department of Public Works. The Division of Highways in the Public Works Department was abolished and control over highways was placed in the hands of a State Highway Engineer appointed by the governor. To fill the new post, Governor Louis F. Hart named James Allen, who had been Highway Commissioner for years before heading the Division of Highways under Public Works Director E. V. Kuykendall.


Sources: Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 81; Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Engineer for the Period Oct. 1, 1922, to Sept. 30, 1924 (Olympia: Frank M. Lamborn, Public Printer, 1924), 8-10; "Forty Years With the Washington Department of Highways," pp. 13-14, Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed October 11, 2004 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/research/History/40years.htm); 1923 Wash. Laws, chapters 62, 81, and 82.

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