Will Traffic Gridlock Break Legislative Bottleneck on Transportation Funding?

Peter Jensen, February 19, 2015, Washington State Wire

As Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, put it, last week’s roll out of a transportation package in the Senate may have been a moment for self-congratulatory high-fiving among the four lawmakers at the podium introducing the package to the public – himself, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.



But, Hobbs said, that discounts the hardest work that’s still to come to get the proposal through a divided Legislature and signed by a governor with a distinctly different approach to funding transportation via his cap-and-trade proposal.


That’s the major difference between the two proposals – where the money will come from. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a 12-year, $12 billion package with revenue from a cap-and-trade program providing a major source of funding for a bevy of mega and medium-sized projects in addition to environmental measures and transit projects. Bonding and fee increases would supply the remaining money.


The proposal backed by the four senators would fund a 16-year, $15 billion transportation package with the main source of money coming from an 11.7-cent gas tax increase phased in over three years, as well as bonding and fees.


Transportation, like education, is an issue where the four caucuses and the governor’s office feel a need to act, and act this year. But, because of the stakes – and money involved – as well as the fundamental disagreement in the way in which the Legislature should act, it will take a lot of energy in negotiating to reach a final deal.


“I think we’ve been negotiating in earnest since the start of the session,” Liias said in an interview earlier this week. “My goal all throughout was that we have a balanced set of investments. It feels like a good place to start the public side of the negotiations.”


Liias and Hobbs, like a number of other lawmakers, said they heard from constituents last fall who were stuck in traffic, and from business leaders needing a way to break through bottlenecks holding up commerce.


“I was up for re-election last fall,” Liias said. “Congestion is becoming a problem. I think we all heard loud and clear from the business community, the environmentalists, the labor community, that we needed to act.”


The Senate proposal has momentum behind it now, as it received its first hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee, which King chairs, on Wednesday. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine said they were supportive, with reservations over the level of taxing authority it would give to Sound Transit. Other local government and business community leaders said they favored the proposal.


Cliff Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council, Jeff Johnson, president of the State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and Jessica Finn Coven of Climate Solutions spoke in opposition, arguing that the proposal shouldn’t tie in reforms to prevailing wage and barring a low-carbon fuels standard in exchange for the transportation revenue.


Lee Newgent, executive secretary of the State Building and Trades Council, said he was supportive but also had disappointment in the prevailing wage reforms included. The package would modify the state’s apprenticeship program, making it apply to only projects with a cost of $3 million or more, and exclude prevailing wage requirements from applying to off-site workers building material for new transportation projects.


“We should not be giving up something we worked very hard for,” Newgent said.


Republicans would counter-argue that it’s a small ask considering the magnitude of the construction projects the transportation package will fund.


It’s already slated for a vote Thursday, and may be on the Senate floor for a vote within the next two weeks. The vote Thursday offers the first opportunity to amend the package as it moves ahead. But beyond that, it would go to the House, where Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said last week he wants to prioritize education spending, namely funding the McCleary decision, before addressing the transportation spending.


Even if signed by the governor, an initiative challenge could be possible. It’s what happened after the Legislature struck a deal on a 9.5-cent, $8.5 billion gas-tax package in 2005, which is also the last time Washington state has seen a transportation package. The proposal passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire was challenged by an initiative, which it ultimately survived, although at a cost of almost $3 million in campaign spending, mainly from heavy-hitting businesses like Boeing, Microsoft, as well as chambers of commerce, realtors and environmental and labor groups, according to History Link.


That’s a point Hobbs made this week – no matter the deal the Legislature strikes, it may have to survive an election challenge. And in that case, it needs statewide support – from the Puget Sound corridor to Southwest Washington, to Spokane, the Tri-Cities and elsewhere.


Hobbs said the transit funding and the authorization for an $11 billion capacity for the third round of Sound Transit funding, following voter approval of packages in 1996 and 2008, will be tied into the overall package. That means it would have to run in King County like it would in Yakima during an initiative. The Sound Transit taxing measure is scheduled for ballots within its region for the 2016 election.


Sound Transit had requested $15 billion in authorization from the Legislature, saying that’s the money that’s needed to get light rail from Everett through Seattle, to Redmond, Issaquah, and down to Federal Way and even to Tacoma.


The smaller authorization came under fire from progressives this week, saying Republicans in Olympia were intentionally short-changing transit. King responded to that criticism in a weekly news conference Tuesday, saying the $11 billion was larger than another, $9 billion figure Sound Transit had put forth earlier. Sound Transit representatives, Murray, Constantine and others pushed for full funding at the hearing Wednesday.


“We need to get it past the voters of the state,” Hobbs said.


Another potential hang-up was over the trade-off Republicans want to force on transit funding by killing the low-carbon fuels standard in the process. Business leaders have argued it will only jack up the cost of gasoline process and cause unnecessary economic damage in the process, while their counterparts in the environmental community contend those concerns are overblown. Traisman, Finn Coven and Johnson said they saw no need for that trade-off.


Hobbs said that was a product of negotiation. To get Republican votes on transit grants, and there’s $486 million in the package unrelated to Sound Transit three, there had to be an ask. That was the low-carbon fuels standard.


“You try to meet people half way,” Hobbs said. “I couldn’t get the low-carbon fuels standard off the table because Republicans wouldn’t take it off. So how do I get a win?”


Liias shared the concerns, but said he favors bringing a light rail line to Everett, and funding a variety of transportation projects in Snohomish County that would receive money under the Senate proposal.


“It’s a little frustrating because we don’t have one mega project,” Liias said. “We’ve got a manufacturing corridor. There isn’t like a $1 billion project that we need. And that’s been a struggle to get across. The House is going to have to take a look at what we’ve done.”


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