Guest Opinion: Transportation bill neuters WA's climate change response for next 16 years

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A smogset over the Puget Sound. Credit: Roland Li

For several years, negotiations have stalled in the Washington state Senate on a transportation package that would fund necessary investment in Washington’s roads, bridges, ferries and transit. Two weeks ago, a deal was proposed and moved forward by the top two Republicans and two ranking Democrats on the transportation committee.

The proposed transportation package recognizes that Washington badly needs infrastructure investment, the jobs that come from it, and additional transit options. It also includes many policy compromises on both sides.

However, there are two fatal flaws included in the package of eleven bills. If they are passed on the Senate floor this week, our state will suffer significant long-term negative consequences.

First, the package includes an environmental “poison pill” – a provision that says if the Governor takes certain actions to address climate change, all funding for transit is stripped away and put into asphalt. Specifically, the bill reads, if “the executive branch adopts, orders, or otherwise implements any fuel standard, or sets carbon reduction requirements, for fuel distributors or vehicles based upon or defined by the carbon intensity of the fuel or greenhouse gas emissions, including a low carbon fuel standard,” all the money designated for multimodal investments and transit would be transferred to the account for roads and highways.

Not only does this eliminate the authority the Governor currently has, it ties the hands of this state to reduce carbon emissions for the sixteen years that the package is in effect.

What does that mean for real people? For a start, it imperils the health of Washington state residents. Carbon emissions are universally tied to worse health outcomes. Our most vulnerable families, who live closer to highways and sites of industrial pollution, are particularly at risk.

One local study found that residents of neighborhoods like South Park have an average life expectancy thirteen years lower than those in Laurelhurst, with air pollution a significant contributing factor. Another national study found that communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites, and African-American children suffer from asthma at three times the rate of white children.

We also know that working families and millennials rely on transit options for work. The provision currently being considered could cripple buses, bike and pedestrian paths, and light rail. Not to mention critical mobility programs for disabled citizens who can’t drive.

If the Legislature passes this transportation package with the poison pill intact, we will be putting the health and mobility of Washington state residents at risk -- not just now, but for the next sixteen years.

Second, the transportation package includes a sneaky all or nothing clause in the underlying bill that provides the revenue for the package (SB 5987) that ties six other policy bills to it. In other words, if any one of the six bills fails to pass, the entire package dies.

Two of those bills dramatically roll back environmental protections. SB 5991 raids funds from the Department of Ecology and local environmental storm water toxics cleanup. SB 5994 erodes protections for our shorelines, prevents members of the community from accessing local courts to appeal permitting decisions, and undermines local governments’ ability to advocate for their communities through permitting standards. It also erodes the State Environmental Protection Act, by stipulating that only the National Environmental Protection Act would apply to certain transportation projects.

On Friday, Senate Democrats offered a compromise package – a bill that would have left the transportation package as-is, but removed the poison pill and the all-or-nothing mandate. It was voted down on party lines.

Some will say that state Democrats aren’t willing to make tough choices. We are already making tough choices.

Personally, I have vehement objections to certain policies in the proposal, including regressive funding sources that fall on working families instead of corporate polluters, and a sales tax shift of a billion dollars in a time when our schools are critically underfunded.

But I am willing to compromise on these points because I know how much the people of Washington need better transit and newer roads. I know how much the people of the 37thth Legislative District need better transit and newer roads. And I recognize that the passage of this package out of the Senate only constitutes one step in the democratic process.

However, there is one thing I am not willing to compromise on. Shackling our state’s hopes for a more reliable, less clogged transportation system to a false ideological choice hampers our ability to make real compromises. We don’t have to choose between clean air and transit.

There is still a chance to work out a better transportation package, if the public demands it. The final vote on the underlying revenue bill containing the poison pill could happen as early as today.

Send a message to your Senator and tell them to demand a tough choice, not a false one. Tell them to demand a funding package that will add 200,000 jobs over ten years, fix our congested and ailing roads, and invest in transit—without giving away our children’s right to a cleaner and healthier future.

That is the bipartisan and positive spirit we have in this state. It’s one I know the Legislature can live up to. We just have to demand it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.