By John Stang
It took 22 months to gestate. But a bipartisan $15.1 billion Washington Senate transportation package with an 11.7-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike was unveiled Thursday.
Now the question is whether enough senators in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses will actually vote for the package, designed to run 16 years.
“From my perspective, this is a first step. Certain pieces cause me heartburn and parts cause heartburn across the aisle,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood and one of the Democratic negotiators on the package. The negotiators — and the only locked-in votes for the proposal — are Sen. Curtis King, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Joe Fain, R- Auburn, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Liias.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle could not say how many Democrats and how many Republicans they can expect to vote for the package. Much of the 22-month deadlock came from uncertainty about the number of Senate votes and a refusal by House Democrats to negotiate until the Senate could get 25 votes for its own position.
Now, the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and minority Democrats will have to chew over the package internally and then continue talks with each other.
In the House, however, Transportation Committee chair Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-MercerIsland, voiced cautious optimism about a bipartisan Senate plan. “It is only one step however,” she said. “The legislation must still pass the Senate before bicameral negotiations can resume in earnest. I look forward to a robust discussion between our two chambers once that occurs.”
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D- Maury Island, said, “Our caucus is not united on it. … It all depends on how it goes forward.”
The new bipartisan draft calls for an increase in the gas tax of 5 cents per gallon in 2016, a 4.2 cents increase in 2017, and a 2.5 cents increase in 2018.
It offers enough money to finish the State Route 520 improvements west of the Lake Washington floating bridge, extensions of state routes 167 and 509, work on a new Interstate 395 north-south corridor in Spokane and tackling congestion problems on Interstate 405 and on Interstate 5 passing Joint Base Lewis -McChord. It would also complete widening Interstate 90 in the SnoqualmiePass. It does not include money for potential cost overruns on Bertha, the trouble-plagued tunnel-boring machine stalled beneath Seattle’s waterfront for 14 months. The package also includes several administrative and technical reforms.
“Every resident of the state will benefit greatly,” said Sen. King. “Projects were selected on their economic benefit and the return on the taxpayer’s investment will be huge. The reforms alone will not only provide more accountability, but additional cost-savings as well.”
Two still-unresolved issues between the Senate’s Republicans and Democrats are dealing with prevailing wages on state projects, and whether sales tax revenue on transportation construction materials should be shifted from the general fund to a transportation-related fund. The general fund supplies money for Supreme Court-mandated education improvements and social services spending.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, questioned why Republicans support raising taxes for transportation, while the GOP is fighting any tax increase for top-priority education improvements.
A wild card is Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s bill to tax the states’ top 130 polluters for their carbon emissions to raise $1 billion annually with $400 million of that going each year to transportation projects. Inslee views that as a way to eliminate the need for any gas tax increase. Right now, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Des Moines, is working behind the scenes to get the needed 50 votes to get that package through the House. At this point, he remains a few votes short.
In a written statement, Inslee said: “Overall, I believe the Senate has put forward a strong start. I appreciate that it funds safety and maintenance, completes projects, authorizes light rail, and invests in multimodal like transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects.”
Inslee added that he has some questions. “We need to look carefully at the total amount of sales tax proposed to be moved from the operating budget, changes to worker wages, and the connection to a clean fuel standard. Under the Senate plan, if Washington adopts a low carbon fuel standard to reduce emissions, we lose transit funding.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also voiced cautious optimism. “Today’s proposal is a good first step, but it can be better,” he said in a press release. “While it’s encouraging that the Senate proposal includes regional taxing authority to expand Sound Transit’s light rail system, I will continue to fight for the full local taxing authority requested by the region. I also believe that the package can go farther to support local freight projects such as the Lander Street overcrossing in Seattle’s SODO industrial area.”
The generally positive tone of the reaction stands in marked contrast with some of the more partisan scape-goating that the Senate has faced on the issue over the past two years. Murray’s support might be especially significant, since, before becoming mayor, he had long experience as a Democrat in the Legislature, including as chair of the House Transportation Committee, and knows both the complexities of transportation policy and how much is involved in achieving bipartisan agreement.
Distributed by Crosscut Public Media