Groups hope to pave the way to better roads

Broad collection of interest groups committed to making sure state allocates plenty of funds to transportation

bshannon@theolympian.comJanuary 20, 2013 

A wide array of Washington interest groups – from labor to business to environmentalists – appear committed to finding agreement on a plan to funnel billions of new dollars into roads, transit, ferries and even storm water projects.

They also hope to get enough support in the Legislature to avoid going to the November ballot.

The groups – which include the Washington State Labor Council, Associated General Contractors, the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Roundtable, and top environmental and public-transportation groups – have been talking since last fall.

“We are all deeply concerned about the transportation infrastructure in Washington state and are committed to working with the Legislature and the governor to get something done this year,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Roundtable, which represents major corporate executives in the region.

“This coalition is in its infancy,” added Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, during a recent press briefing on labor priorities in 2013. “But we hope to step it up over the next two or three weeks – with joint lobbying, joint op-ed pieces ...”

Many of the parties were involved in 2005 when former Gov. Chris Gregoire had just taken office and helped pass a multibillion-dollar package. They say that there are parallels to that time, but that this year they are meeting sooner to find common ground.

It’s not all about roads. Transportation Choices Coalition favors help for transit programs that have lost a lot of revenue during the recession, said leader Rob Johnson. Environmental lobbyist Clifford Traisman says there also is a huge backlog of critical storm water projects needed to slow the runoff of pollutants into Puget Sound.

New Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week also signaled his interest in seeing what the stakeholder groups come up with – and it appears Inslee is no longer insisting as he did as a candidate that lawmakers hold off a year to build up public trust. Inslee said transportation is part of his jobs and economic development package, but he also called for using “creativity” as much as concrete in any plan that emerges.

Johnson of the Labor Council said there certainly is a jobs aspect to the proposal that appeals to construction unions and contractors. But he said there also is the reality that state roads and bridges have deteriorated along with the quality of transit.

“We need a significant down payment on that. It’s time for the Legislature to step up to it,’’ Johnson said.

But how big a package – and what all can fit under the political umbrella – are major questions still far from being worked out. Ideas on the table start at a $5 billion price tag and go as high as $20 billion, which is the Labor Council’s goal.

Washington lawmakers approved gas tax packages in 2003 and 2005. Together, those increased the gas tax 141/2 cents and were worth a total of $13 billion, according to the Department of Transportation.

House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, says she is talking to the coalition members and is looking at a package valued at $5 billion over 10 years. She said her proposal is a conversation piece at this point and would devote between a fifth and a third of money for maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

Much of the rest would go for megaprojects or to complete major highway corridors that exporters need to get products through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to Asian markets.

Among the mega-projects is completion of the state Route 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington. Also in the mix: widening and interchanges for Interstate 405, and completion of a state Route 167 freight corridor to the Port of Tacoma and a similar Route 509 freight corridor serving the Port of Seattle.

Don Brunell of AWB said his association is pushing for projects statewide, which means there would need to be money for the North-South Freeway in Spokane and the new Columbia Crossing bridge connecting Oregon and Washington near Vancouver.

Whatever happens, motorists can expect to pay more one way or another – whether it’s fuel fees, license fees or special fees for hybrids and electric cars. Weight fees for commercial trucks and excise taxes on cars also could end up in the mix, although groups participating in the talks have different views on those options.

If lawmakers added 10 cents to the state’s 37.6 cents per gallon gas tax – as Clibborn has suggested in her bid to start a conversation – Washington would top California’s rate of nearly 46.2 cents and would have the fourth highest gas tax among states.

Clibborn said she is not ready to lay down a formal proposal and won’t until at least mid-February, but she has talked with interest groups about a 2-cents-a-year increase over five years and weight fees for commercial trucks.

She also is suggesting a 0.3 percent increase in the state’s hazardous substances tax, bringing it to an even 1 percent. That money would be earmarked for storm water projects for the state, cities and counties.

Any new tax would need a two-thirds approval by both chambers – or it goes to the ballot. The coalition has agreed it wants to get a package done in Olympia, which means winning over a share of Democrats as well as members of the Republican-dominated coalition in charge of the Senate.

But business groups say too much is at stake to not act. Mullin said the state’s own data show that 9 percent of Washington’s roadway surfaces are in poor shape and that those needing repairs could grow to 50 percent in a decade if nothing is done. He called that a major threat to the region’s economic vitality.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 @BradShannon2

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