Transportation plan barrels past quarrels

By John Stang
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Commuter traffic in Bellevue

By John Stang

The "poison pill" stays in. The Columbia River Crossing bridge in Vancouver still stays out.

And a solid Democrat-Republican split exists on the compromise Washington Senate transportation package that includes an 11.7-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike.

That's in spite of the Senate Transportation Committee sending the $15.1 billion package to the full Senate Thursday. Even though senators from both parties had negotiated the proposal, the votes on the disputed segments were mostly along caucus lines.

The minority Democrats on the transportation committee tried several times to remove the so-called "poison pill." That's a part of the bill that would shift much of the package's transit, pedestrian and bike-path money to work on roads if Gov. Jay Inslee installs low-carbon fuel standards. That provision is a favorite of the GOP senators, who oppose Inslee's push for low-carbon-fuels standards.

The committee's Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove the poison pill outright or to have the issue revisited two years into the 16-year transportation package's lifespan. And they tried to reduce the gas tax hike to 7.7 cents per gallon while partially installing an Inslee proposal to tax the carbon emissions of the state's top 130 polluters, with most of that money going to transportation projects. Each attempt died along caucus lines.

"I don't understand the connection between multi-modal (transit and biking-pedestrian programs) and the low-carbon fuel standards," said Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland. Habib argued that low-carbon fuels standards are an environmental measure, and not a transportation infrastructure program.

Committee chair Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, countered: "I believe there is a connection between the low-carbon fuel standards and this package. We're asking the citizens of Washington for a healthy increase in their gas taxes." And, Republicans believe, a low-carbon fuel standard probably raising gas prices later.

The package's proposed gas tax increases are 5 cents per gallon in 2016, another 4.2 cents in 2017, and a final 2.5 cents increase in 2018. Washington’s current gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon.

The Democrats' attempt to reduce the gas tax increase to 7.7 cents a gallon was based on the potential money from a carbon emissions tax money. Inslee wants to raise $1 billion annually by charging the state's top 130 polluters for their carbon emissions. Inslee's proposal calls for $400 million of the $1 billion to go to transportation projects annually, with another $380 million going to schools, and the rest to other purposes.

The GOP members in the Senate and House vehemently oppose that plan, arguing it would raise gas prices and drive industries out of the state.

Meanwhile, the two sides are still split on some proposals favored by Republicans to trim some prevailing wage requirements on state transportation projects plus a number of other labor-related matters. And the GOP wants to get rid of the sales tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The Democrats still vehemently oppose that.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, tried to resurrect the defunct Columbia River Crossing bridge replacement within the package, arguing the bridge is getting old and Clark County might have to repay the feds for some initial United States money already spent. Senate Republicans killed that project in 2013 because of philosophical concerns with using state money for light rail, which would have been part of the bridge's replacement. They also argued that the new bridge would be too low for some river traffic.

King said it is not certain that the feds will try to get their money back.

A major question is whether the Democratic-controlled House will choose to go solely with a gas tax hike to provide transportation money, go solely with Inslee's carbon emissions tax or vote for a combination of the two.

Even if Republicans use their superior numbers to quickly move the transportation proposal out of the Senate, the negotiations between the two chambers still might stall for several weeks. On Thursday, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington said the House wants to first pin down the revenue and spending aspects of complying with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling to improve education in Grades K-3. And then the House Democrats want to work the transportation package around the education budget to put together the overall budget picture -- at least in that chamber.


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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