Economists and engineers have jumped into overdrive to deal with last Thursday's collapse of part of Interstate 5's Skagit River Bridge. But politically, it is difficult to say if the incident will have any effects on a state legislators wrestling with transportation budget deadlocks.
The collapse has renewed political jousting between Democrats and Republicans, who were already deadlocked over whether the state's transportation budget needs extra gas taxes of 10 cents per gallon spread across four years — a key part of the Democratic House's $8.4 billion transportation revenue package.
Republicans object to the tax plan and they have vehemently opposed current plans for replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, while Democrats support that replacement. Washington has to provide $450 million — which is being blocked by the Republican-oriented Washington Senate — to have already-committed support from Oregon and the federal government kick in to cover the rest of the $3.5 billion price tag.
The question is whether the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge will break those impasses, in either direction.
Neither side has shown an inclination to budge in recent months.
The conservative wing of the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus has been controlling Senate, imposing strict party discipline on its own members to the extent that the caucus' moderates won't stray from conservative stances on almost any issue. That wing refuses to publicly ackowledge the possibility that any tax increase or closureof any tax exemption should be considered — taking a my-way-or-the-highway stance against the Democratic-controlled House.
That same majority coalition's vehmence and strong party discipline extends to opposing replacing the Columbia River bridge. A major reason is that highly influential conservative caucus members Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, are deadset against it. Even the promise of the feds picking up most of the costs has not swayed them.
Meanwhile on the House Democratic side, beliefs and emotions on a gas tax increase and replacing the Columbia bridge are just as strong. And House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has a history of digging in his heels at least as deep as the majority coalition leaders are doing now.
The bottom line is sheer stubborness and pride are likely big factors in the stalled negotations over the gas taxes and the Columbia River Crossing. Also, the rank-and-file members of both sides are not in Olympia at the moment to pressure their leaders. Instead the rank-and-file are staying home, waiting for their leaders to compromise enough to hold party caucus meetings to discuss the matters.
The Skagit River Bridge is 58 years old and designated as "functionally obsolete." That means if it were designed today, it would be configured to handle greater traffic loads with more up-to-date engineering. An oversized semi-truck triggered the collapse by its load hitting the overhead trusses, which broke the bridge for reasons still under investigation.
Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and co-chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, "We can only hope that people will realize we need a revenue package. ... I don't know if this will change anyone's mind or vote on a revenue package."
Despite the challenging environment, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chairman of the same committee, said he, Eide and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, are working on a compromise between the House's gas-tax-based revenue package and the tax-adverse Republican-oriented Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate.
He said the Skagit bridge collapse was an accident caused by a semi-truck, and the budget compromise needs to be take into account the bigger picture. Eide said the House transportation budget proposed for 2013-2015 calls for $176 million for bridge maintenance and operations. King said the majority coalition wants a better handle on the overall transportation revenue situation before committing itself to a course of action.
The opposition to the Columbia River Crossing plan focuses on the fact that the proposed new double-decker bridge would have light rail on the lower deck, which many Clark County residents don't want to pay taxes for. Also, the new bridge would be too low for three upstream businesses to ship their products under.
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