Amid all the finger-pointing and half-truths regarding the Legislature’s alleged failure to pass and fund a transportation plan, a glance back at the 2003 “nickel package” provides the best tutorial on how to successfully get a transportation-revenue package through the Legislature and to the governor’s desk. The themes from over a decade ago run startlingly parallel to today.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation was created by the governor and the Legislature to assess the transportation needs across the state. In 2000, the Commission reported that Washington was heading for a transportation crisis: Population, vehicles, miles traveled and peak-hour congestion had all increased; transportation funding had not.
In response, then-Gov. Locke proposed a $17.2 billion transportation package to the Legislature based on the commission’s recommendations. It was loaded with snazzy new projects, ambitious road improvements and a serious jump in the state gas tax, all without requiring more accountability from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The 2001 Legislature was unimpressed. With a crippling price tag, a tough-to-sell gas tax and absent WSDOT reforms, Locke’s proposal went nowhere — even after three overtime sessions devoted to transportation.
Locke was handed a gift in 2002: A Democrat majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. After the governor erased some items from the project list and subtracted a few billion, how could the Legislature say no?
In the end, the Legislature put the decision to the voters in the form of a referendum. If passed, a 9-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase would provide funding for $7.8 billion in transportation projects over 10 years.
This time it was the voters’ turn to be unimpressed; the referendum overwhelmingly failed.
In 2003, lawmakers reached agreement on a bipartisan transportation-revenue package that even included a 5-cent gas-tax increase – hence, the “nickel package."
What changed between 2001 and 2003? Was it the governor going on the offensive and scorning those who didn’t support his proposals? A string of former legislators writing newspaper columns decrying the position of opponents in the Senate and House? Organized labor finally convincing lawmakers to “do the right thing”?
It was none of the above.
In the spring of 2001, a new Secretary of Transportation took over the helm at WSDOT and began doing the hard work of transforming the agency. New accountability and performance standards were implemented. The agency saw the value of measuring results and broadcasting them, especially to the Legislature. Communication and transparency brought a new level of confidence to the public.
The governor was forced to get real about the size of the revenue request. What began as a breathtaking $17.2 billion proposal was whittled to a $4.5 billion package.
Legislators also put some important sideboards around the bill. Any project on the list had to be “shovel ready” and of “statewide or regional significance.”
What made the difference between 2001 and 2003? It took WSDOT stepping up and making visible reforms; containing the cost of the revenue package; and applying sensible criteria to what projects even made the list. When all those things happened, lawmakers could get on board.
What would make enough difference to get a transportation-revenue package through in the 2015 legislative session? The Majority Coalition Caucus has been saying it since assuming leadership of the Senate almost two years ago: Serious WSDOT reform before more revenue. Reforms like returning the sales tax collected on transportation construction projects back to the motor vehicle account to be used for other transportation projects and making congestion relief a transportation goal. Congestion relief is something that should already be a target, but isn’t.
The Legislature and the citizens of Washington also deserve transparency about the cost of Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate policy to hard-working families and family businesses in Washington and, finally, a reasonable price tag.
It’s been said that to move forward, you sometimes have to look back. You also need to be willing to learn from the past.