A transportation breakthrough in the state Senate

The News Tribune Staff, March 4, 2015, The News Tribune

Passing a highway-and-transit package replete with taxes and fees was always going to be a tough proposition, in this or any other session.


So the state Senate – the Republican state Senate, no less – achieved a major political breakthrough Monday when it approved $15 billion worth of projects along with the requisite revenues, including an 11.7-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. It’s not a done deal yet: House Democrats see one of its provisions as a poison pill.


The legislation promises to relieve traffic chokepoints across the state. No region would benefit more than the South Sound.


Its biggest megaproject would connect state Routes 167 and 509 to Interstate 5 as part of a grand plan to speed cargo shipments from the ports of Tacoma and Seattle and relieve congestion on I-5. SR 167, which now stops abruptly at Puyallup, would be finally extended to the Port of Tacoma, expediting freight shipments through the Kent Valley to markets as far away as Chicago.


The bill would also widen I-5 in the crowded Joint Base Lewis-McChord corridor, opening one of the worst commuter traps in the state. More than 100 other projects would be funded.


The vote was an impressive demonstration of Republican pragmatism.


The party’s anti-tax hard-liners had seemed the chief obstacle to any major improvement to the state’s transportation system. When some of them demanded such reforms as streamlined permitting and exempting projects from the state sales tax, it was hard to tell if any of those concessions would actually persuade them to take a tax vote. Nevertheless, the package has now been sent to the House covered with Republican fingerprints.


Those fingerprints are especially evident on a provision designed to strangle a proposal favored by climate activists. Gov. Jay Inslee has been contemplating an executive order that would impose tighter carbon-emission standards on gasoline and other fuels sold in this state. Although these standards would be imposed on suppliers, the costs would ripple through the market and increase the price at the pump.


The precise increase is hotly debated, but many Republicans figure it would be something above 10 cents per gallon, roughly the same as the gas tax. The Senate has included a fair number of non-automobile projects in the package, including mass transit, bike paths and pedestrian walkways. But as the measure is written, funding for those “green” projects would get yanked and redirected to roads if Inslee orders carbon-based standards.


It’s reasonable to raise the question of how new carbon fuel rules would affect consumers – that’s a matter of transparency in government. But the standards are a distinct issue that ought to be debated and decided on its own merits.


Using a critical statewide transportation package to kill the idea seems roughly the equivalent of trying to undo President Obama’s immigration policy by defunding the nation’s homeland security budget. Senate Republicans can surely find another way to force a broader discussion of Inslee’s reputed climate machinations.


If the Senate proves reasonable on that question, the House should deliver this package to the governor. All Washingtonians – Republicans, Democrats and independents – need a functional transportation system.



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