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Transportation improvements stall out as Legislature gets ready to go home

A highway construction project. Credit: Ed Schipul/Flickr

Talks on a Washington transportation package have gone into a cryogenic freeze, to be awakened who knows when.

Republican and Democratic negotiators acknowledged Wednesday that it would likely be months, maybe 2015, before the transportation talks are finished. Each side blames the other for the lack of movement in the talks. Each side claims to have moved more than the other.

In addition, each side has engaged in political gamesmanship over two budget shifts that the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus wants, and the Senate and House Democrats do not want.

The Republican-dominated Majority Coalition wants to get rid of the sales tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax. Both measures are deal-breakers for the Democrats, who note that losing this money from the state's general fund will either cut into the Washington Supreme Court-mandated education improvements, or lead to large losses in social services.

Neither side has budged on those two issues.

And neither side has any idea when talks might resume.

On Wednesday, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and lead House Democrat negotiator, said the two sides are too far apart and are making insufficient progress in their talks. Consequently, she said, she does not believe the impasse will be resolved until 2015. "I am furious. I am frustrated as anybody," Clibborn said.

She also noted that only 13 members of the 26-member Majority Coalition support its transportation stance, and the coalition needs to pick up 12 more Republicans or Democrats or both before her House Democratic colleagues will considers the coalition's stance as legitimate. The Senate has 49 members. 

The Senate Majority Coalition's lead negotiator, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, retorted: “From the very beginning, the [coalition] has prioritized reforms, and additional revenue was never off the table. But in the end, the Senate’s minority Democrats weren’t serious about making the tough reforms. They were more interested in tax increases and sound bites, despite knowing as well as I do that the state can’t win public support for a multibillion-dollar transportation package without first establishing that we are serious about fixing the waste, mismanagement and abuse that exists within the system.”

The Majority Coalition — which generally hates any tax increase — has gradually unveiled a $12.3 billion 10-year proposal with an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. Last May, the House and Senate Democrats announced their $10.5 billion proposals with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. The coalition package completes some work that the Democratic proposal does not.

Without new revenue, the Washington State Department of Transportation is poised to cut ferry service and dramatically trim maintenance on highways and bridges because of a lack of money. And the longer the deadlock continues, the more likely it is that delays will occur in overhauling State Route 520 west of the Lake Washington, finishing the new 520 bridge over the lake, widening Washington's east-west artery of Interstate 90 in the Cascade Mountains and finishing the Interstate 395/North Spokane Corridor highway project. All this means that both the blue and red parts of the state will be hurting.

Gov. Jay Inslee and both parties in the Legislature have said they want a package of transportation improvements, something that many businesses argue is important to maintaining the momentum of the state's economic recovery.

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

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