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Olympia and transportation: Can we cut our way out of this?

Construction on the Highway 520 project (June 2012). Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation/Flickr

If the Legislature decides to leave a transportation package until the end of the year, the state will have to cut road work and ferry operations. 

The chances are growing that the Washington Legislature might hold off until December to hash out a $10- to $12-billion transportation package for the next 10 years.

Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson says her agency has "a Plan B," which involves lots of cuts in order to survive financially. The agency will have to implement if no package emerges by mid-March, according to Peterson. 

Another long delay in any transportation package emerged as a strong possibility on Monday, but it's not certain. The Republican senator leading his party's negotiations on transportation says he will try again Wednesday to reach agreement within the Majority Coalition Caucus on what his side wants in a final package. 

The Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and the House and Senate Democrats have been haggling over a transportation package for at least nine months. A December scenario would extend the talks to 20 months .

"It's doubtful that there is the will to move in this session,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and lead transportation negotiator for the 24-Republican-two-Democrat majority coalition that controls the Senate. The Legislature has six weeks left in the current session in Olympia. The two sides are significantly far apart on their bargaining stances, making a quick resolution unlikely.

Publicly, the Democrats began with a $10 billion proposal, financed in part by a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. The current gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. House Republicans and the Senate majority coalition originally took a no-tax-hike stance. The majority coalition's last public figures were a gas tax hike of 11.5 cents a gallon to support a $12.3 billion, 10-year plan. However, Republicans also want to do some major budget shifts that would directly or indirectly take money from social programs — moves that the Democrats oppose. Also, the two sides are split on some Republican-proposed transportation reforms.

King has been trying to work out a new majority coalition package that he hopes both Democrats and the coalition can agree on. "I'm trying to find a balance that's responsive to both sides of the aisle, but not give away the farm for the (Majority Coalition Caucus,)" he said. 

On Monday, Democratic legislative leaders called the stalled transportation package a "jobs package," saying delays in passing it will stop potential increases in employment. "That's 7,000 jobs annually. … That is truly an economic driver," said Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.

Nelson wants the coalition to unveil a package that would be supported by more than a handful of the majority caucus' moderates. "I'd like for them to have at least 14 (out of 26 coalition members) votes for their package," she said.

In his remarks Monday, King said he hopes to present a new proposal to his own caucus on Wednesday to see if it has enough support to send to the Democratic negotiators. If no transportation legislation is passed by mid-March, King said, a December special session is the most likely plan. That's because both sides would prefer to avoid entering the November elections with their incumbent candidates having a recent gas tax increase on their records, he said.

If the transportation package talks go into 2015, King said, 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.

In a recent interview, Peterson said, "we'll have to go to Plan B" if the current legislative session does not come up with a transportation package to pay for projects underway or on the drawing board.

Video from Seattle Top Story

Plan B includes cutting ferry runs by 17 percent in order to stretch out money. The state would have to cut 52 percent of the maintenance and preservation on Interstate 5 from 2015 to mid-2019, also to stretch out the current money. Other maintenance projects would have to be reprioritized, she said. 

King County Metro faces a 17 percent cut in its services this year by the lack of a transportation package. However, King County Executive Dow Constantine and members of the King County Council decided not to wait for the Legislature to do something, and called for a public ballot to raise vehicle license fees from $20 to $60 and to raise that sales tax within the county by one-tenth of 1 percent. They proposed that public referendum to head off the expected Metro cuts, a move that has drawn criticism from Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has already put a $4.6 billion cap on overhauling Highway 520 including the floating bridge across Lake Washington. Funding sources for $2.72 billion have been nailed down, including tolls, which leaves 1.4 billion in revenue still to be found to pay for overhauling State Route 520. That money would cover work between Lake Washington and I-5, including the approach to the new pontoon bridge, on and off ramps for the University District and Montlake neighborhoods, transit connections and a second bridge over the Montlake Cut. This part of the overall 520 project needs some money soon for the state to start design and right-of-way work, Peterson said.

In another project needing revenue, gas tax money has paid to build the first three miles of a 15-mile overhaul of Interstate 90 east of the Snoqualmie Pass summit. The work's westernmost end is at the hamlet of Hyak, two miles east of the summit. A section there took from 2009 to 2013 to do. Currently, the next two miles to the east is being worked on with a 2018 completion date. The following two miles to the east are in the design phase with a 2020 completion date. That section will include a widely heralded wildlife crossing over the highway, meant to protect motorists and wildlife alike.

However, the remaining eight miles, to the tiny hamlet of Easton at the eastern end, has not been funded or designed, and has no timeline. This is the segment that would be indefinitely held up without a transportation package, Peterson said.

In Eastern Washington, roughly 5.5 miles of the 10-mile-long Interstate 395/North Spokane Corridor highway project is done. But money has not been appropriated for most of the remaining 4.5 miles. The project needs $750 million in a new transportation package and up to 10 years to work its way from initial through final construction, a timeline that is being delayed by the current transportation package impasse.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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