By Andrew Garber and Mike Lindblom, April 17, 2013, Seattle Times
House Democrats plan to vote on an $8.4 billion transportation tax package next week that would pay for work on Interstate 405 and on Highway 167 near Tacoma, and include money for a controversial new bridge over the Columbia River.
A revised proposal, released Tuesday, includes a 10 cents-per-gallon increase in the state gas tax, phased in over four years, as well as additional vehicle weight fees ranging from $15 to $35 annually on trucks and passenger cars.
Cities and counties could increase their own local car-tab fees to a total of $40 a year without a public vote.
The tax package’s fate appears largely tied to the proposed Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland, commonly referred to as the Columbia River Crossing. The GOP-led majority in the Senate maintains that project is a deal killer.
However, House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn on Tuesday indicated the package might move ahead even if the Senate doesn’t agree to her proposed $450 million gas-tax contribution toward the $3.4 billion, two-state bridge.
While she expects the House to pass a transportation plan that includes the project, “if it comes back (from the Senate) without it, I don’t think we’d kill the package,” Clibborn said.
Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, also said he’d like to see a package approved even if it doesn’t include the Columbia River bridge.
“At the end of the day there are a lot of other … transportation projects where there is some agreement on, that they’ve got to move on,” he said. “We all need a package.”
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom said a tax package is possible if the bridge is taken out.
“With the CRC (Columbia River Crossing), it doesn’t move forward, and without the CRC, there’s a real shot,” Tom said.
However, he said he wants any tax package sent to voters for final approval.
Senate Republicans have pushed for the crossing to be removed from the package, in part, because of concerns the new bridge would not be high enough for companies to move cargo and equipment under it.
There is also strong opposition around Clark County to putting light rail on the bridge, where Portland Tri-Met’s MAX Yellow Line would cross the river to downtown Vancouver. Opponents fear being yoked into paying new transit-operations taxes or think rail is a waste of potential road space.
Gov. Jay Inslee strongly supports extending the rail line, which already serves some Washington residents who use MAX park-and-ride lots just across the river.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood warned state lawmakers recently if they don’t commit several hundred million dollars toward completing the Columbia River Crossing, they risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal support.
About two-thirds of those federal dollars are transit funds that would cover the additional cost of light rail. The feds have allotted the first $65 million in the proposed fiscal 2014 budget.
Clibborn’s latest House Democratic proposal would total roughly $8.4 billion, including $4.8 billion in new taxes and fees, $600 million in fees approved by the Legislature last year and $3 billion in bonds.
The package would pay for a variety of highways, including $1.27 billion for extensions of Highways 167 and 509, over 12 years. Those highways are considered key for moving freight to the Port of Tacoma and near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Other big-ticket items include $675 million toward widening I-405 from Lynnwood to Renton, and $420 million for the North Spokane Corridor.
An additional $175 million would go to roads serving Joint Base Lewis-McChord, $135 million to Interstate 90 widening east of Snoqualmie Pass, and $109 million for the Highway 2 Snohomish River Bridge.
Clibborn would add $100 million to the new Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington, which is $1.4 billion underfunded.
But the House on Tuesday also passed an amendment by Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, that would forbid 520 bridge construction at the Seattle shoreline until the Legislature authorizes tolling the nearby I-90 bridge to cover 520’s funding shortfall.
The goal is to avoid sticking Seattle’s Montlake area with an unfinished project, or a situation where traffic arrives in Seattle from a wider, six-lane bridge several years before the state can afford parklike lids over the highway to dampen the noise.
The plan also assumes tolls would help support construction bonds for Highway 167; for I-405 HOT (high occupancy/toll) lanes where solo drivers can pay to go faster in the carpool lane; and for the I-5 Vancouver-Portland bridge.
The plan reserves more than $900 million for highway maintenance and preservation.
House Democrats plan to move the tax package out of committee this week and have a floor vote next week.
The Legislature is running out of time to act. April 28 is the last day of the regular session, and lawmakers have yet to negotiate a state operating budget.