Inslee urges highway plan, but takes backseat on gas tax

Don Jenkins, May 29, 2015, Capital Press

Gov. Jay Inslee went to a sausage factory Thursday to urge state lawmakers to grind out a deal on funding highway improvements.


Speaking at the Oberto Sausage Company’s main plant and headquarters, Inslee said new road projects would help trucks, including those carrying Eastern Washington farm products, enter and exit Puget Sound ports faster.


“It means we’re going to get Yakima apples to the Port of Tacoma,” he said.


Inslee’s push for a transportation package came on the same day he called a second 30-day special session. The first month-long special session, which followed the 105-day regular session, failed to produce a 2015-17 operating budget.


Lawmakers also haven’t agreed on a plan to increase transportation spending beyond current levels. Without new revenue, the state’s transportation budget will be about $7.6 billion over the next two years.


To speed up projects, the House and Senate have separate $15 billion, 16-year proposals.


The plans differ in key ways, but both call for gradually raising the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel by 11.7 cents per gallon by 2018. The tax has been 37.5 cents per gallon since 2005.


Inslee has proposed paying for new road projects by taxing the carbon emissions of manufacturers, including food processors and a fertilizer company. Lawmakers have rejected the carbon cap-and-trade proposal, which was the centerpiece of Inslee’s climate change agenda coming into the session.


Inslee was noncommittal when asked at a press conference Thursday outside Oberto about where he stood on increasing the gas tax.


“We stand for investment,” he said.


Inslee, a Democrat, added that people might see a gas tax hike as reasonable because they could see the benefits.


He urged legislators to compromise. “To get a transportation package, we need legislators to not insist on their ideological viewpoints,” he said.


Inslee’s two predecessors — Democratic governors Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire — lobbied hard for gas tax increases in 2003 and 2005, respectively. This time, the Republican-led Senate initiated the push for a gas tax hike, which has won support from some agriculture exporters.


Washington exported $730 million worth of frozen potatoes last year through the Seattle and Tacoma ports. The Washington State Potato Commission supports raising the gas tax if the extra revenue goes toward improving Interstate 90 over the Cascades and state routes that link I-90 and Interstate 5 to the ports, the commission’s director of governmental relations, Matt Harris, said.


Anderson Hay & Grain of Ellensburg makes two deliveries a day to the Seattle and Tacoma ports. CEO and President Mark T. Anderson said he supports the gas tax increase, assuming the result is a better maintained I-90 and less congestion around the ports.


“There’s consensus about the projects and the maintenance needs. I don’t think there’s any consensus on trust about how these funds get used,” he said.


Inslee’s appearance at Oberto highlighted a long-delayed plan to extend State Route 167 between Puyallup and Tacoma. The new section of highway would help trucks traveling between I-90 and the Port of Tacoma avoid backups on I-5.


The company’s patriarch, 87-year-old Art Oberto, said the investment would have lasting benefit for his company. “This is definitely something that’s going to have residual value,” he said.

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