Transportation deal: Are we there yet?

"We're closer than you think," a key senator says. But after more than six months of negotiations, agreement remains elusive.
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Traffic on the Highway 520 floating bridge

"We're closer than you think," a key senator says. But after more than six months of negotiations, agreement remains elusive.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the prolonged difficulties reaching an agreement on transportation improvements than the scenario that played out Thursday. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus' $12.3 billion transportation budget package went to a public hearing but the caucus itself hasn't signed off the package.

"We haven't gotten to that point yet," said Sen. Curtis King, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and leader of the majority coalition's transportation negotiators.

Getting all 25 of the majority coalition members — soon to be 26 — together at once to be briefed on the package and to decide whether they will support it as a caucus has been difficult, he said. King was unsure when such a caucus discussion on a transportation package would occur.

Meanwhile, one of the Democrats' lead transportation negotiators, committee co-chairwoman Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said her caucus is on board with the positions that she and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, have taken in the closed-door talks. Clibborn, chairwoman of the House's Transportation Committee, is the Democrats' other lead negotiator. Clibborn was not at a Thursday Senate public hearing on the majority coalition's transportation package. However, she told the Associated Press that the two sides are getting closer to an agreement.

"We're closer than you think," Eide said.

Eide said the two biggest remaining disputes are budget-shifting issues. The majority coalition wants to get rid of the sales-and-use tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The majority coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax. 

The majority coalition's current proposal is not in any official form, such as a proposed bill, even though it was the subject of a Thursday public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee. King warned the crowd of 350 that the majority coalition's current proposal will likely be different when the final draft is hammered into a bill.

Transportation package talks have gone on for more than six months. 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 23-Republican-two-Democrat Senate majority coalition originally took a no-tax-hike stance. The majority coalition's current proposal of a gas tax hike of 11.5 cents a gallon began informally, becoming public in Olympia less than two weeks ago.

Both the Republican and Democratic versions include similar long lists of transportation construction and fix-it projects, which have received overwhelming public support.

King wants to get a package ready for a House and Senate vote in a special session before the next regular session begins on Jan. 13, 2014, not wanting the issue to complicate that session. Gov. Jay Inslee has said he would call such a special session if both sides have compromised on a package that would sail through.

At Thursday's hearing, Michael Ennis, representing the Association of Washington Business, called for quick action on the transportation package before the January regular session, noting that Inslee is expected to push climate change measures — such as a cap-and-trade program and possibly a carbon emissions tax — in the upcoming session. Business interests, labor, local governments and environmentalists are united, including in their overall vision, in pushing for a transportation package. Ennis expressed fear that the upcoming debates over Inslee's climate change plans would get politically tangled with passage of a transportation package. The AWB and other business interests are expected to oppose some of Inslee's climate measures.

More than 100 people testified at Thursday's hearings. Almost all wanted a transportation package quickly passed, with many supporting the majority coalition's proposal. A few wanted a clause added to the package's eventual bill that it would go into effect immediately after Inslee signs it, without waiting for the usual 90 days before it goes into effect. Otherwise, they said, additional delays allocating money might bump 2014 construction projects back to 2015. It's also likely that some legislators would favor a clause enacting the measure immediately as a way to head off any referendum effort to overturn the tax hike.

"I want to encourage you to get to the finish line by the end of this year," said Kenmore Mayor David Baker.

Not one of Thursday's testifiers opposed any gas tax hikes to pay for the package's projects. The majority coalition sponsored a statewide series of public hearings on how to put together a transportation package, and received sporadic resistance to such an increase but there was no groundswell of opposition showing up

Thursday's biggest gripes were southwestern Washington's local governments saying their region was shortchanged in the amount of earmarked projects; transit advocates saying pubic transit was similarly shortchanged; and labor representatives opposing proposed changes in how prevailing wages and apprenticeships are set up in state-funded projects.

The majority coalition's package would grant King and Snohomish counties the legal ability to levy their own fees as a way to raise revenue. Snohomish and King county governments, with a good deal of public support, have been fighting for new, permanent levy authority for almost a year. Without new revenue, King County faces a projected 17 percent cut in Metro transit service in 2014.

The question now is whether, after a half year of effort, an overall agreement on transportation can be reached prior to Jan. 13.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8