Legislators are hearing it from public on transportation

State lawmakers asked to hear from people all over the state. Some trends are emerging.
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Robert Strader of Yakima lobbies for state transit funding authority to keep bus Route No. 8 intact in Yakima.

State lawmakers asked to hear from people all over the state. Some trends are emerging.

It's an all-politics-are-local scenario.

A legislative listening tour so far has shown overwhelming support for a Washington transportation package, although the details of what people want most vary widely. On the Eastside, there's a big emphasis on Interstate 405 improvements. South of Seattle, there's a push to improve access to the Port of Tacoma along Highway 167. And in eastern Washington, they want to finish making Highway 12 four lanes between Pasco and Walla Walla.

The public feedback was significantly less clear, however, on whether the Legislature should support a gas tax hike to pay for all the construction. 

The Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus set up a bipartisan tour of 10 Washington cities through mid-October to get feedback on how to put together a transportation package of projects, revenue sources and reforms. Crosscut attended the first four sessions, in Bellevue, Everett, Wenatchee and Yakima (the Tri-City Herald reported on a Thursday evening session in Pasco.) 

Senate and House Republicans and Democrats are split almost totally along party lines in supporting two drastically different approaches on putting together a transportation package. The Democratic-controlled House passed a $10 billion transportation package with 10.5 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax in June. The 23-Republican-two-Democrat Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, with a 25-24 majority, decided to kill that package by refusing to consider it.

One item that died with the transportation bill killed by the majority coalition was language that would allow local transit authorities to levy taxes at current levels for their own operations. Without that language, many transit authorities, including King County's Metro, face cutting routes in 2014 because they cannot raise the money to keep those services.

Republicans opposed the package because of a hardcore stance against any new taxes, and because they opposed replacing the Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland, which was part of the bill.

Later in the summer, the majority coalition unveiled its own proposed transportation package that calls for raising $800 million with budget shifts, little in the way of new construction, and several administrative reforms. Any discussion of raising gas taxes might wait until 2015 or 2016 under the majority coalition's approach.

Gov. Jay Inslee wants to call a special legislative session in November to pass a transportation projects-and-revenue package. The majority coalition set up the listening tour — with legislators from both parties attending — to prepare for the upcoming transportation talks. Senate Transportation Committee co-chairpersons Sens. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, attended all sessions. Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, attended three of the first four. Many other legislators attended sessions in or near their own districts.

In the hearings, people in Bellevue, Everett, Wenatchee and Yakima strongly supported a November legislative session. "Time is of the essence. Our economy depends on it," said Ron Olson, a resident of Snohomish County. At least 725 people attended the first four sessions with 238 speaking to the senators and representatives.

In broad strokes, the feedback so far showed:

  • Almost everyone in the crowds wants a transportation package as soon as possible for two overriding reasons.

The first is that numerous cities, counties, business interests and ordinary people wanting better highways and bridges. Most focused on individual projects that would help their own communities.

Speakers said that I-405 is always clogged. Interstate 90 in Snoqualmie Pass, handling 8,000 semi trucks a day, needs upgrades to continue. Benton City needs a roundabout. Yakima has traffic flow problems. Eastern Washingtonians want to finish widening of the semi-clogged State Route 12 between Pasco and Walla Walla to four lanes. State Route 167 needs to be extended to the Port of Tacoma to improve the flow of exported goods and crops out of Washington to the world. Eastside residents want a State Route 520 better suited to deal with their rapidly growing communities. 

Snohomish County residents want U.S. 2 overhauled to make it safer after tallying 80 fatalities since 1990.  "How many people have to die on U.S. 2 before there are major improvements?" said former Monroe Mayor Donnetta Walser.

The other consistently mentioned reason is that the state spending money on highways, bridges and ferries translates to money in workers' pockets to circulate through the economy, many said.  "A transportation package to me means jobs, jobs, jobs," said Snohomish County Executive John Lovick.

  • Crosscut counted 23 people in the four sessions saying that a gas tax hike is needed. A few more called for new revenue without specifically mentioning taxes. Also, if most of the projects lobbied for in the four sessions are approved in November, new revenue will be needed, likely extra gas taxes unless legislators think up other sources.

"Reforms are great. Revenue is needed now," said Page Scott of Yakima County.

"You've gotta grow some cojones and raise revenue," said Anthony Vicari, an Everett resident, told the legislators. "For now, a gas tax makes the most sense. ... The more you wait, the more expensive these (projects) become," said Eric Thrift, a construction worker from East Wenatchee.

  • Fourteen people in the four sessions specifically spoke against a gas tax increase. The largest number of anti-tax speakers showed up at the Yakima feedback session. Only three anti-tax speakers showed up at the Bellevue and Everett sessions.

"Please take the message to the Legislature of: Don't even think about raising taxes," said Rich Cole of Malaga. "It's gonna be hard on budgets. It's gonna be hard on families," said Autumn Torres of Yakima. 

"Reforms first before taxes. Let's get it in the right order," said Sandi Belze Brendale of Yakima. Anti-tax chocolate chip cookies — with red frosting circles and red diagonals slashed through them — were passed out at the Yakima meeting.

  • Keeping and improving public transit was popular at all four sessions. Hardly anyone wanted transit-oriented cuts, which will hit several transit agencies including King County's under a no-action scenario. "You have to think of the needs of the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Public transit is lifeblood for them," said Everett resident Jim Delant.
  •  A couple dozen supported managerial reforms at the Washington Department of Transportation and streamlining granting permits needed for transportation work. No one opposed those measures.
  • About 30 blue-collar workers and labor groups oppose tinkering with the current prevailing wage laws on public projects and apprenticeship systems on the same projects — changes mentioned by the majority coalition as possible reforms. "If you slash the wages of the middle class, they will have less to spend at Washington businesses," said Jimmy Haun, a Yakima County carpenter. Two other people said workers on state construction projects are overpaid.

In Everett, prominent anti-tax activist Tim Eyman criticized the feedback sessions. "The people attending these meetings, including myself, are not a representative sample of the taxpayers of Washington. Normal human beings are not in this room," he said.

The next day, Eyman sent out an email that said: "There's certainly no harm in having this listening tour (although last night was more of a talking tour for politicians), but it's important to state the obvious: the special interest groups that will receive the money are dominating the discussions at these forums."

The Bellevue sessions had heavy participation from Seattle and eastern King County governments and economic groups, plus at least several dozen private citizens. After Eyman's remarks, about 12 to 15 people at the Everett hearing made a point of saying he or she was a "normal person" or "real person." 

The Wenatchee and Yakima sessions had significant number of officials and business representatives from small towns supporting a transportation package with projects for their communities, as well as ordinary people with a wide range of pro-and-con opinions. At Yakima, the huge, normally tax-adverse Association of Washington Business supported a tax increase to fund projects to create jobs.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8