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Inslee revives push for gas tax and transportation projects

Gov. Jay Inslee Credit: Photo: John Stang

Gov. Jay Inslee wants to call a special session in November to pass a multi-billion-dollar transportation package — a move that failed early this summer.

But Inslee is looking to push roughly the same package that a 25-vote majority in the Washington Senate did not want anything to do with in June. The governor appears to be hoping that at least one of the suburban moderates in the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus will cross the aisle to join 24 minority Democrats in getting a package passed late this year.

This is not a slam dunk by any means. The majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats was extremely disciplined during the six months of the 2013 session. The small group of moderates in that coalition always stuck with the predominantly conservative alliance to oppose bills that those same moderates supposedly supported: For example, making immigrant high school graduates eligible for state college aid and making abortion insurance coverage mandatory. The strongest political bonds among coalition members are fiscal – they like lean budgets and hate new taxes.

Inslee, the Senate Democrats and the Democrat-controlled House failed to even budge this 25-member voting bloc on any issue. The majority coalition's main objection was the House's 2013 transportation package, which called for a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. The coalition is skittish about passing a gas tax hike just prior to the 2014 elections. It is also leaning toward passing transportation reforms in 2014 and saving any gas tax increase for 2015 or 2016. 

At a Tuesday press conference with King County Executive Dow Constantine, Inslee said the package he hopes to be considered in a possible November special session would be similar to the one that failed in June, and would include a yet-to-be-determined gas tax hike. About the only significant difference between the failed House package and Inslee's current plans is Columbia River bridge between Vancouver and Portland. His new proposal would likely not include replacing the span. That project is either dead or on life support, because critical federal funds evaporated when Washington lawmakers failed to approve the state’s $450 million share of the $3.5 billion project.

"I'm an optimistic on the subject (of a transportation package),” said Inslee. “When the will is there, we can get things done." As a can-do example, Inslee pointed to the collapsed Skagit River bridge which the state repaired in 27 days. But that fix-it project cost only $15 million, and the feds provided most of the cash.

Dow Constantine said a November or December session would not work unless Republicans and Democrats had a rough agreement going into it, If not, he said, "we'll have the same old game playing."

Inslee and Constantine are hoping that pressure on the majority coalition from businesses and voters eager for highway and bridge improvements will sway members. "Since the legislators came home from the Senate, they have caught both barrels from the business community," Inslee said.

Business interests including the normally tax-adverse Association of Washington Business backed the Democratic transportation package, including the increased gas taxes, during the last session because it would have added construction jobs along with other economic benefits.

Constantine and Inslee pointed to highway and bridge construction work needed in King County and the fact that four moderate members of the coalition are from King County: Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, Joe Fain, R-Auburn, Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island. Another moderate, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, represents Pierce County which has a stalled extension of State Route 167 in the Democratic proposal. Two much-more conservative coalition members are also from Pierce County: Sens. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, and Steve O'Ban of rural Pierce County. The remaining coalition members represent significantly conservative parts of the state.

Inslee hopes the public feedback from the upcoming series of bipartisan public transportation discussions across the state will convince Republicans to back off their no-new-taxes stance enough to put together a November transportation revenue package. The stakes are high for bridges, roads and transit.  

At the moment, 143 Washington bridges are “structurally deficient.” Unless a transportation revenue package is passed soon, warned Inslee, that list will grow by 71. ("Structurally deficient" means that a bridge cannot handle the loads it was originally designed to carry.) King County has targeted 35 bridges for maintenance and upgrades in the near future. But it needs state transportation money to subsidize the work.

King County Metro will be forced to cut 17 percent of its bus services next year, including some in the suburbs, if a transportation revenue package does not include legislation to allow King County to levy for extra, Metro-targeted taxes. The proposal to do just that died in June when the majority coalition refused to consider action on the House package. Bus service is “just as important to Redmond and Belleuve," Inslee said.

And then there are the roads. At least 70 stretches of roadway in King County at risk. Their road beds will soon deteriorate to the point of needing replacements, according to Brenda Bauer, director of the King County roads division. "We're already seeing monster potholes," she said.

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