Officials say Sound Transit needs to go big

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A light rail train gets ready to pull out of the Rainier Beach station.

The King and Pierce county governments want Sound Transit to be able to ask voters for up to $15 billion for transit expansion in the Puget Sound region.

That was the biggest push at a Thursday hearing the Washington House Transportation Committee held on a transportation revenue package passed by the Senate. The Senate limited the maximum Sound Transit can seek to roughly $11 billion.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said her city wants a light-rail line to Sea-Tac Airport, just as Seattle has. The $15 billion limit is needed to do that, she said. "It's something our region needs desperately," Strickland said.

"Fifteen billion dollars will provide congestion-free light rail to King, Pierce and Snohomish counties," said Larry Phillips, chair the King County Council. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and several suburban local government leaders echoed that stance.

No one testified against a $15 billion limit for Sound Transit.

The Senate package has $15.1 billion in highway, bridge, ferry, transit and other projects. It includes an 11.7-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike phased in over three years to support the 16-year plan. Washington's current gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon.

The Senate passed the measure 27-to-22, largely with Republican votes. Seven Democrats supported it, mostly to move it forward and allow negotiations with the House.

Most if not all Senate Democrats object to a so-called "poison pill" in the Senate package. It would shift transit money to roads if Gov. Jay Inslee installs a low-carbon-fuels standard. Republicans vehemently oppose low-carbon fuels standards. The seven "yes" Democratic senators earlier voiced hope that the poison pill would be removed in negotiations with the House.

"I don't like the low-carbon fuels language. Maybe we can meet in the middle," testified Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who helped negotiate the Senate package. He was one of the seven Democratic "yes" votes.

Most of 90 people testifying Thursday-- overwhelmingly representatives of local governments and economic development groups -- focused on the good that the transportation projects would do for their communities.

Two people testified against the gas tax hike, citing local gas stations and fuel distributors' competition with cheaper gasoline from Oregon, Idaho and tribal lands. "If our members don't sell fuel, the state doesn't get the tax revenue," said Rod Smith, representing the Washington Oil Marketers Association.

A handful of economic groups and local government leaders said the gas tax hike is worthwhile because of its funding of transportation projects. "The average driver in Washington would pay a whopping $6 a month more," said Todd Woosley, representing the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.

The poison pill did not spark much testimony. "If you penalize oil manufacturing in this state, they will go out of state," said Joe Wilson, representing a Bellingham fuel distribution firm. Jessica Finn Coven, representing Seattle-based Climate Solutions, countered that the poison pill "pits two critical needs against each other."

Charles Knutson, a senior policy advisor to Inslee, testified that the governor opposes the poison pill provision.

Inslee also opposes a sales tax revenue transfer in the Senate package. That would transfer sales tax revenues collected on the state’s transportation-related construction projects from the state’s general fund to a transportation-related fund. That’s roughly $1 billion over the 16-year lifespan of the entire transportation package. The general fund provides money to education, social services and numerous other functions.

Democrats argued this money is needed to meet the state education requirements needs from a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling and a 2014 initiative to improve teacher-student ratios in Grades K-12. Republicans have countered that the sales tax change actually corrects an improper but long-running use of transportation money for non-transportation purposes.

Roughly a half-dozen local government officials testified in favor of the Democrats' stance on the revenue transfer.


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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