Transportation special session has tough road ahead

September 8, 2013 

The Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River connects Vancouver, Wash. and Portland, Ore. The planned Columbia River Crossing project would replace the I-5 bridge. (Associated Press)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal to convene a special session of the Legislature this fall to pass a 10-year transportation revenue package is a good idea most likely to fail.

There is no doubt about the need for a multi-billion package to repair the state’s deteriorating roadways and bridges and to complete unfinished projects from previous transportation funding, such as the extension of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma.

Keep Washington Rolling, a delicate coalition of strange bedfellows from business, labor, environment, farming, public transit and commercial freight, is supporting the governor’s proposal. It supported the failed House 2013 transportation plan to raise more than $8 billion over 10 years with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. When groups with such disparate interests coalesce around a specific cause, lawmakers should pay close attention.

The KWR coalition argues the state has already waited too long to make investments in transportation infrastructure. Any further delay jeopardizes “the safety of our citizens and the health of our economy.”

The argument continues that relieving general highway congestion supports economic development, which means more family-wage jobs. On that point, Keep Washington Rolling’s members have set aside traditional differences and lined up in support of a big transportation package.

So why is Inslee’s proposal to reach agreement before the 2014 regular legislative session likely to fail? Because the conservative Republican-controlled Senate coalition wants reforms within the Department of Transportation before agreeing to a tax hike.

“Before we go to the people asking for more money, the state needs to prove that it’s already stretching every dollar it has,” says Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.

Some of the 10 reforms on the Republicans’ list have merit, and lawmakers are naturally skeptical after the state Route 520 bridge fiasco. Other reform ideas, such as the DOT’s prevailing wage policy, simply reflect party dogma.

It’s unconscionable to hold back thousands of family-wage construction jobs and providing the transportation infrastructure that keeps drivers safe and the economy moving forward over partisan policy decisions.

It also is unlikely the latest plan put forward by the Senate coalition will receive support from the Democrat-controlled House. It calls for reforms and a measly $800 million, mostly achieved by moving sales tax revenue out of the general fund. That probably means more cuts to social services.

In an effort to achieve compromise, Inslee excluded the Columbia River Crossing project from his proposal. He knows the Interstate 5 cross between Vancouver and Portland is a hot button topic for some Republicans. But that’s not winning over everyone in Southwest Washington.

The Vancouver Columbian newspaper complains that Inslee is cutting off Clark County “like a gangrenous limb.” The newspaper points to the Interstate 90 project, which is on the list, and notes that 27,000 vehicles per day cross Snoqualmie Pass, while 134,000 vehicles cross the Columbia River every day.

Republicans and Democrats start a joint listening tour next week, stopping at seven cities in six regions. It’s a show of public engagement that’s unlikely to change either party’s position or reveal any clear-cut public consensus.

If lawmakers can’t agree before the start of the 2014 session, no package is likely before 2015. With half of the state’s senators and all of the House facing re-election in 2014, nobody will be eager to raise taxes.

To succeed, Inslee must lower expectations on reforms and find a middle ground on funding that meets our current need without forcing more draconian cuts to social services. It’s a tall order, and we wish him well.

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