An $8.9 billion transportation spending plan released Monday in the Legislature would accelerate plans for tearing down and replacing a deteriorating 1925-built bridge across the Puyallup River on northbound state Route 167.
The bipartisan proposal by the House Transportation Committee would also double the number of state-funded vans for Joint Base Lewis-McChord employees who car-pool to work, aimed at reducing base congestion.
But anyone looking for major steps to ease trips on Interstate 5 alongside the base, or to advance highway megaprojects, such as an extension of Route 167, won’t find them in the two-year budget plan.
Those big projects, lawmakers of both parties agree, won’t go forward unless voters approve new taxes – something they could be asked to do next year.
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“We will have to have new revenue,” committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn said, “in order to make the red go away in this budget.”
That would be the red ink of the deficits that the state’s transportation accounts are about to start running, mostly due to the decline in gas tax collections due to the economic downturn and drivers using more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The state expects to collect nearly one-fifth less of that revenue over 16 years than it projected in 2007.
Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she hopes to have an outline of a tax package ready by the end of this year’s legislative session but would not seek to put it on the ballot until 2012.
A highway across the military base should be part of a revenue package, Clibborn said.
Another project unlikely to get going without new taxes is the long-planned extension of Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma. But lawmakers are taking baby steps toward finding other money for the road.
The House budget would spend $1 million on further study of whether the state should impose tolls on Route 167 drivers. And it provides $425,000 for a study of alternative financing sources for 167 and other megaprojects.
Clibborn and her GOP counterpart Rep. Mike Armstrong agree that new revenue is needed for the system. Clibborn prefers gas tax increases, while Armstrong called that an “antiquated system” for paying for roads – while declining to say what other kind of tax or fees he would push instead.
The committee’s proposed budget does include one major increase in revenue. It would raise ferry fares by 7.5 percent this year, even as it cuts ferry runs including the Point Defiance-Vashon Island ferry.
The fare hike is less than what Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed, even as the House also proposes fewer reductions in ferry runs than Gregoire sought.
The governor proposed a 10 percent increase in ferry fares, plus a surcharge that would vary based on the price of diesel fuel, which House budget writers declined. They made up the money by diverting more money to ferries from other modes of transportation.
REPLACING AGING BRIDGE
There is little money for new projects in the House transportation budget – which Armstrong, a Republican from Wenatchee who joined Clibborn in writing it, called a “bare-bones” proposal – or in the Senate version of the plan that is scheduled for release today.
But it does pay for design work for the Puyallup River bridge replacement, which had been scheduled to wait until 2014 to begin.
Lawmakers called for diverting $2.7 million in federal money from other projects to the bridge in the next two-year budget period. The Department of Transportation moved it up on the priority list after a recent inspection showed deterioration on the bridge’s floor beams.
The inspection prompted WSDOT to restrict trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds to the bridge’s right lane, after first planning to close the bridge to the trucks altogether.
About 15,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day.
The project is now expected to be largely finished in the 2013-15 budget period and to cost $30 million.
“We’re very happy that DOT revised their original plans,” said Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.
WSDOT originally planned to build a larger span at a cost of $54 million for both northbound and southbound lanes, but has now scaled back the project.
The budget would provide $520,000 to buy 20 new vans to be driven by soldiers and civilian employees at the military base south of Tacoma.
“That portion of I-5 is extremely, extremely congested,” said Jessyn Farrell, spokeswoman for Pierce Transit, which manages the van pool program in the area, “and there’s been a real effort on the part of the base to reduce commute trips.”
The budget proposal also allows WSDOT to finish outfitting northbound I-5 onramps with stop-and-go traffic signals as planned.
But it doesn’t contain money that WSDOT has said it would need to study the cost of major improvements to I-5 around the base.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, said WSDOT already has a good idea of the road improvements needed around the base. The money to implement them will have to come from the federal government, he said – and possibly from new voter-approved taxes.