Transportation deal: Don’t count on it

Traffic on I-405 near the Highway 520 interchange: Is help on the way? Credit: Photo: Oran Viriyincy

As legislators prepare for a new session that starts next week, it is increasingly questionable whether the Legislature will pass a multi-billion-dollar transportation package.

On Thursday, legislative leaders hinted that a transportation package might not pass until the 2015 session. Already, the Washington Department of Transportation is figuring out how to deal with the lack of a transportation package to pay for projects, said Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. But she said that a package is needed immediately.

There are not enough Republicans senators willing to vote for any gas tax hike to approve their own proposed transportation package without some support from minority Democrats. The current Republican package has a proposed increase of 11.5 cents a gallon.

And using Democratic votes assumes the leadership of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus would allow a floor vote in the first place —something it was unwilling to do in the last regular session unless its members were unanimous in their position.

Gov. Jay Inslee is continuing to make passage of a transportation measure a top priority. "If the Legislature is unable to produce a transportation package this year, not only will we have long-term problems, but short-term problems as well," said Inslee at a Thursday Associated Press forum that included separate sessions with legislative leaders. Inslee pointed to the possibilities of work stalling on replacing the State Route 520 across Lake Washington to I-5 in Seattle, Interstate 405 on the Eastside, the proposed extension of State Route 167 to Tacoma and highway work around Spokane.

If the transportation package talks go into 2015, the Legislature will become distracted by wrangling over the 2015-27 state operating budget, plus dealing with the increased demands for money to fix schools as required by a Washington Supreme Court ruling, Inslee said.

Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating for eight to 12 months — depending on when you start the clock — on a package of transportation projects, how to raise money to pay for those projects and changes in transportation-related laws. Last May, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $10 billion proposal, financed in part by a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. House Republicans and the Republican-dominated Senate majority coalition originally took a no-tax-hike stance. The majority coalition's current proposal of a gas tax hike of 11.5 cents a gallon was informally unveiled in public in November.

At Thursday's forum, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the majority coalition, with 26 members, will not collect 25 votes among its own members to pass a transportation package with any tax hikes in it. Twenty-five votes are needed to approve anything in the 49-member Senate.

Seattle Top Story was at the forum

King did not know how many Republican senators would oppose a package with a tax increase. He and Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, portrayed the question as premature, saying the caucus has not done a vote count yet. Questioned by reporters, King said the SR 520 bridge and waterfront tunnel construction problems don't help with gas tax support.

King speculated that the Democrats and Republicans might not come to an agreement on transportation in the 60-day 2014 session that begins next Monday. Half of the Senate and the entire House are up for election in November, so everyone will be skittish about passing a tax increase this year, King suggested. "It just makes it tough for everyone to come to an agreement. But we're going to try," he said.

Besides the gas tax issue, Republicans and Democrats are still split on the majority coalition's desire to get rid of the sales-and-use tax on transportation construction materials, which Democrats counter would reduce money to the state's general fund. The majority coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax — which Democrats oppose. Urban Democrats want more money for mass transit, while the rural Republicans want less money allocated there. And the Republicans want to trim prevailing wage requirements on state-financed transportation projects, a move than labor-backed Democrats oppose.

At Thursday's forum, both Republican and Democratic transportation leaders opposed an Inslee proposal to mandate some use of low-carbon vehicle fuel in Washington. Republican leaders contended that requiring low-carbon fuel would add 60 cents to a $1 per gallon to the price of fuel — a huge burden on top of an 11-cent gas tax hike. Democratic transportation leaders Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said they would oppose such a large fuel price increase on top of a gas tax hike. Inslee later questioned the figures on any cost effect from low-carbon fuels.

The legislative leaders' united stance surprised Inslee. He said in all of the transportation and carbon emissions talks, no one brought up that a low-carbon-fuel mandate as a deal breaker on transportation funding. Republicans have dug in deeply against installing a low-carbon fuel mandate in Washington, expressing worry that Inslee might create a requirement through administrative means. On Thursday, Inslee said he would explore all options on this matter, and would not rule out administrative action.

A difference of opinion on next steps also emphasized the difficulties of reaching a final agreement. Inslee contended that the majority coalition must pass a transportation package in the Senate in order to have solid Republican and Democratic positions established for the continuing negotiations. However, King said he did not believe that was necessary.

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