Citizens speak out on statewide transportation listening tour

Ten public hearings. One clear message: We want a transportation bill!
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Citizens urge lawmakers to get moving on a transportation bill.

Ten public hearings. One clear message: We want a transportation bill!

The people have spoken. Now, what will Olympia do?

The last of 10 public hearings – Tuesday night in Bellingham – focuses on whether and how the Washington Legislature should tackle a transportation package. The ninth hearing took place Monday evening in Seattle. More than a dozen state legislators showed up.

The Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus set up these bipartisan hearings as a prelude to mapping out a state transportation package. But will the legislative Democrats and the majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats that controls the Senate, actually hammer out a transportation package?

Gov. Jay Inslee sure hopes so. He wants to call a special session of the legislature next month where lawmakers would debate and hopefully pass a transportation revenue package. The funding from such a package would put numerous construction projects into motion. But none of that happens without a proposal and, as the governor concedes, we’re "certainly not close at the moment."

"If people want to come to the table and make compromises, it'll happen," said majority coalition leader Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina. He declined to speculate on the likelihood of reaching a compromise.

There are two drastically different paths to a transportation package, and Senate and House Republicans and Democrats are split along party lines in their support of each approach. In June, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $10 billion transportation package which includes a 10.5 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, by a 25-24 majority, killed that package by refusing to consider it.

Included in the ill-fated transportation bill was language granting local transit authorities the power to levy taxes, at current levels, to underwrite their own operations. Without that taxing power, many transit authorities, including King County's Metro, will be forced to cut routes in 2014, because they can’t raise the money to pay for those services.

Republicans opposed the package on the basis of their hardcore no new taxes stance, and their opposition to replacing the Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland, which was also part of the transportation bill. (That bridge replacement proposal died for various reasons, though supporters are trying to revive it.)

Later in the summer, the Senate majority coalition unveiled its own transportation package. The Senate version calls for raising $800 million with budget shifts, a few administrative reforms and little in the way of new construction. Under the majority coalition's approach, any discussion of gas tax hikes would wait until 2015 or 2016.

At Monday's hearing, Katie Wilson of the King County Transit Riders Union dismissed the listening tour as “a sham and a farce.” The majority coalition, she contended, was “just using this listening tour to support a transportation package that aligns with their agenda."

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Tom (at left) disagreed, contending that, while the hearing crowds are "not a representative sample of the voting public," the tours give legislators a feel for the transportation needs of each region in the state. So, what have we learned from all this public input?

First, there seems to be little angst over gas tax hikes. Few people have spoken out about the issue. In the five events attended by Crosscut, only a handful addressed it. Of those, roughly two-to-one favor raising the tax. Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman is a notable exception. The sole opponent at Monday’s hearing in Seattle, Eyman called for referendums on any proposed tax increase. The crowd interrupted his two-minute speech six times with jeers and boos, prompting Senate Transportation Committee co-chair Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, to gavel twice for order.

Second, an overwhelming majority of the 400-plus Seattle crowd wanted King County to have the legal ability to levy its own fees as a way to raise revenue and avoid the projected 17 percent cut in Metro transit service in 2014. "We are here because we are angry about those cuts," said Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s Socialist City Council candidate. Citizens at other hearings voiced similar concerns .

Finally, people in Western Washington are anxious for some kind transportation package. The Seattle crowd and crowds in other cities strongly supported the passage of a transportation package soon as a way to alleviate countless traffic problems across the state and create construction jobs. Crowds in Everett, Bellevue and Tacoma hearings showed overwhelming support to get transportation construction projects underway.

Everett, Bellevue and Tacoma are represented by moderate Republican senators who voted with their conservative majority coalition colleagues to kill the transportation package last June. One big question is how those moderates will vote – with anti-tax conservatives or their own constituents – if a new transportation package comes with a gas tax hike.

  

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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