A current transportation revenue-and-reform proposal from the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus falls short on two counts: It will not raise enough money to extend State Route 167 in Pierce County all the way to the Port of Tacoma, and it won't provide enough cash to improve State Route 509 in Pierce and King counties.
It is (theoretically) possible for legislators to pass a gas tax hike that would provide the extra money in its 2014 session. But a gas tax hike for those projects is more likely to occur in the 2015 or 2016 session under a methodical approach called for by the Majority Coalition Caucus. That new-tax-averse alliance of 23 Republican and two Democratic state senators controls the Washington Senate and can block any Democratic attempt to raise the gas tax in 2014. The same coalition already killed a proposed 10.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike for transportation improvements in June, chiefly because coalition members opposed tax increases as a general philosophy.
The state needs an extra $3.4 billion, give or take, over the next 12 years if it hopes to pay for all the improvements called for in the House's 2103 transportation revenue package. That $3.4 billion estimate does not include the controversial proposed replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland, another majority coalition victim. The coalition’s Vancouver-area Republicans just couldn’t abide the light rail component of that I-5 bridge proposal.
A few weeks ago, the coalition unveiled a counter-proposal to a House Democratic plan that it refused to consider in June. The counter offer involves raising an extra $800 million in transportation revenue over 10 years by shifting money from other programs. That $800 million figure is far less than what Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative Democrats say is needed.
Rep. Judy Clibborn (above), D-Mercer Island and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said she could agree with most of the majority coalition's proposed reforms, but noted that the proposal does not raise much money to tackle actual transportation construction projects. "It's a drop in the bucket,” said Clibborn. “If you don't have a revenue package, you don't have anything."
Back in June, when the majority coalition rejected the transportation revenue package supported by Gov. Inslee and the Democrats, it did not have its own alternative. Now it does. Meanwhile, the coalition and Democrats have scheduled a statewide listening tour to get feedback on that transportation proposal and on the subject of gas tax increases in general. The dates and cities are: Bellevue (Sept.17), Everett (Sept. 18), Wenatchee (Sept. 23), Yakima (Sept. 24), Spokane (Oct. 2), Vancouver (Oct. 7).
"We would like to get public input on the 10 reforms we are putting out," said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. The coalition wants to reach agreements with the Democrats on what reforms will be tackled before it addresses how extra transportation money will be raised, and spent. King said the group will likely consider a gas tax increase later this decade to underwrite capital projects. "We probably need to get prepared,” he allowed. “There is going to be a revenue package at some time.”
The offices of Clibborn and Inslee said they are willing to work with the coalition on the transportation items up for discussion in the feedback sessions.
There’s also the possibility that a short special session, focused on transportation, could be called in November or December – if the two sides appear close enough to agreements to justify such a session. King doubts that a gas tax increase would appeal to Democrats and Republicans in a late 2013 special session, or a 2014 regular session. "Half the Senate and all of the House will be up for election (in 2014),” said King. “There is not a lot of excitement to push a tax in an election year.”
The coalition's proposal does not include language that would let King County levy its own new fees as a way to raise revenue and avoid a projected 17 percent cut in Metro transit service in 2014. That measure went down with the Democrats' transportation proposal that died in June.
The majority coalition’s proposal features several major planks. One involves moving some sales tax revenue from the state's general fund to the transportation budget. Such a move would provide $400 million of the $800 million in new transportation revenue (across 10 years) that the coalitions' package calls for. Clibborn is unsure how this idea will play in the Legislature.
The coalition also wants to finish re-directing some environmental money to its originally intended purpose: stormwater fix-it projects. That would send $40 million annually, or $400 million over 10 years, to the transportation budget.
Another item on the coalition wish list is allowing ferry builders to also design the vessels they construct. This comes with the stipulation that construction prices cannot grow if the builders change the designs or experience unanticipated cost increases. The new ferry-building process would take effect several years from now when the state's current ferry-construction contract – with Vigor Industrial & Marine Co. – ends.