Editorial: Roads Plan Could be Sellable with Hurdle Gone

Editorial Staff, September 6, 2013, The Spokesman Review

It was disappointing when the Legislature ditched a transportation package after completing its regular session and one double-overtime. But there’s still hope that a plan can be cobbled together for much-needed improvements.

Gov. Jay Inslee is calling for a special session in November, and he says he will remove one of the major hurdles to an earlier plan: the Columbia River Crossing, a new bridge on Interstate 5 connecting Vancouver and Portland. The crossing was designed as a joint project with Oregon, with both states tapping federal funds to finance much of the project. But Oregon wanted light rail to be included, and many Washington legislators did not. That wasn’t the only problem. The bridge design wouldn’t have allowed taller cargo ships to pass underneath, which would’ve had a direct impact on employers along the river.

Last week, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced plans to go it alone on the crossing, saying he would have a plan for the Oregon Legislature to consider soon. The deadline for tapping federal funds is this month.

Inslee’s decision to omit the bridge funding – $450 million under the House of Representatives’ plan – also removes the reason many legislators gave for opposing a transportation package. The GOP-led Senate Majority Coalition blocked a vote, but its leader, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said Tuesday that dropping the bridge would help lawmakers reach an agreement.

However, legislators need to actively sell a package because it will require new funding, and that’s always controversial. The House’s $8.4 billion plan called for a 10.5 percent phased-in gasoline tax and would have given local governments the option to assess a 1.5 percent vehicle renewal tax. The Senate Transportation Committee has announced seven town halls across the state to discuss the issue. Spokane’s is scheduled for 6 p.m., Oct. 2, at Greater Spokane Incorporated, 801 W. Riverside Ave., a venue that might be too small.

House Republicans are calling for a half-dozen reforms before considering new revenue, and some of those ideas have merit. For instance, exempting the sales tax on transportation project purchases. Or, the state could continue to collect the tax but funnel the proceeds to the transportation budget, rather than the general fund. Tightening oversight is also warranted, as was demonstrated with the $81 million engineering error on the Highway 520 Bridge.

But we don’t agree with any strategy that would hold transportation projects hostage until these reforms have been passed. The need for commerce and public safety improvements is too great. Business and labor interests have been pushing for more projects, but the federal government has tightened the funding spigot. There is consensus that projects such as the North Spokane Corridor need to be accelerated, but there’s been reluctance among legislators to ask the voters for more money.

With a significant hurdle removed – the Columbia River Crossing – lawmakers must come together on a plan to finance vital projects and then take the lead in selling it.

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