Lawmakers disagree on how to create funding
By Leilani Leach, February 10, 2014, Columbia Basin Herald
Nearing halfway through the session, legislators are doubtful they can agree on how to fund local rail projects and other transportation issues.
The Port of Quincy has been seeking $900,000 to increase the size of the intermodal terminal, where the Cold Train ships a growing number of agricultural products across the country.
“We’re moving a lot of apples, a lot of French fries, a lot of Washington state products out of Quincy on the train and the congestion is getting to where we need more space,” Port of Quincy Public Affairs Director Pat Boss said.
He said the train has grown from having 100 refrigerated containers to 450 within the two years it’s been running.
But legislators are undecided on where to find transportation revenue. They’ve discussed increasing the gas tax by about 10.5 to 11.5 cents per gallon.
“As much as I support that project, I don’t support a 12 cent gas tax to get it,” Rep. Matt Manweller said, R-Ellensburg. “I’m not going to vote for a $12 million tax increase to get a million dollar project.”
He said it would take a “miracle meeting of the minds” for legislators to approve the funding this session.
Instead of a gas tax increase, some legislators want to see reform.
“Can we fix the way we’re spending the taxpayer’s money before we ask for more?” asked Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake.
She and other legislators would like to see the state adjust the prevailing wage rate so that contractors for state transportation projects don’t have to be paid as much. They’d also like to change the sales tax on fuel so that it funds the transportation budget instead of the general fund.
“Bottom line, we’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Newbry said, estimating that it takes $1 billion each year from transportation revenue.
But redirecting sales tax on fuel away from the general fund would also mean a billion dollars less for education and other budget categories.
Newbry said she recognizes the need for transportation, especially rail, project funding. She’d like $25 million for the Port of Moses Lake to complete a project connecting its tracks to main rail lines.
“Our growth in Central Washington is dependent on improved rail infrastructure,” she said.
Boss said the ports of Quincy, Moses Lake and Warden are in the same boat if the transportation revenue package isn’t agreed on.
The port announced this week that it was joining a Great Northern Corridor Coalition to reduce congestion along railways from the Pacific Northwest to Wisconsin.
Port of Quincy Commissioner Patric Connelly said in a press release that more than 203 million tons of freight move through the corridor each year. The railways keep 4.8 million long-haul trucks that would be needed for that amount off the road each year.
“Perishable shippers that utilize the Port of Quincy Intermodal Terminal rely on the Great Northern Corridor to move Washington state fresh produce and frozen foods by intermodal rail to 20 states in the Midwest and East Coast,” Connelly wrote.
Boss said Quincy is one of the more congested ports and that anything to improve the terminal will “get more trains down the track and reduce delays.”
“Can Quincy go for another year and make do? They probably can, but at some point we’re going to run out of room,” he said. “It might be a year from now, it might be two years from now, but it will happen if we don’t get that money.”
Rep. Brad Hawkins (R-East Wenatchee), a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t think there will be an agreement this session.
He pointed to comments from Senate Transportation Committee Chair Curtis King (R-Yakima) suggesting that the Legislature might have to convene for a special session in December, after elections.
Sen. King could not be reached for comment, but Public Information Officer Eric Ebel said that the idea the senator would like a special session was “misconstrued.” King has written a new transportation proposal but it’s not yet ready for unveiling, he said.
Boss said he wasn’t sure a new proposal would help much if it wasn’t voted on until December. The port may be able to find a state or federal grant in order to work on its expansion.
“It is what it is. It’s politics,” Boss said. “For whatever reason, right now they just can’t agree on some of the reforms being proposed.”