Editorial: Time for Olympia to clear roadblocks for a transportation package

Negotiations in Olympia on a transportation infrastructure package must pick up a sense of urgency.



Seattle Times Editorial, February 10, 2015


FOR at least two years, the state Legislature has been seized in an unproductive argument about whether and how to approve a multibillion-dollar transportation investment package. It’s past time to end the melodrama and get the state moving again.


At this point, lawmakers should not need to be reminded why a package is needed. But just in case, smart investments are necessary because poor freight mobility remains a threat to the region’s trade-dependent economy; without new revenue dedicated to maintenance, 60 percent of roads will fall into the category of “poor or very poor” in the next decade, jeopardizing safety; and worsening congestion in the Puget Sound region is a soul-sucking hell.


The Legislature also should seize the opportunity now because fuel prices are at their lowest levels in a decade — consumers and businesses are better able to absorb an uptick in gas taxes. Lawmakers should also wrap up a transportation deal before fierce negotiations begin on an education-focused operating budget.


A gas-tax increase of about 12 cents a gallon, implemented over several years, would yield enough revenue to complete the partially finished Highway 520 bridge and the North Spokane corridor, to resolve intransigent bottlenecks on Interstates 5, 90 and 405, and to widen corridors to Seattle and Tacoma ports.


To make the package credible with voters — it most likely would be put on the ballot as a referendum — the negotiations must move past ideological objections raised by lawmakers from the left and right.


One meaningful reform would be to end the sales tax on transportation projects. Currently, $71,100 is due in sales tax for every $1 million spent on state-owned highway maintenance and improvement projects, according to a 2014 study by the Joint Transportation Committee. In taxing itself on the total contract price, Washington is an outlier nationally.


That policy raised nearly $400 million for the general fund over the past decade, which pleases many Democrats. But because gas-tax revenues are bonded, this practice is the equivalent of a household paying for groceries with a mortgage loan. Getting rid of the sales tax on transportation projects would lower their cost, allowing a gas-tax increase to buy more.


A transportation package able to survive a popular vote also must include authority for Sound Transit to go forward with an expansion proposal. Some in the Senate Republican caucus are ideologically opposed to light rail. But they’re not being asked to fund it, only to give Sound Transit the ability to put its own funding package on the ballot in the counties it serves in coming years.


The Senate shouldn’t block the ability of King, Pierce and Snohomish county voters to decide on what’s best for their mobility in the state’s dense urban core.


The transportation negotiations under way now in the state Senate must represent the urgency of the need. Legislative leaders should set a deadline of mid-March, when the Legislature’s attention will shift to the operating budget.


Delay further and the Senate risks sending a message to the business community — which has strongly backed a package — that it can’t address the basics of governing.


It’s well past time for Olympia to keep the state moving.


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