Politics & Government

Washington state Legislature adjourns after long, simmering session

After the longest single-year legislative session in Washington history, the state House and Senate adjourned Friday following passage of the final parts of the state’s first transportation package in a decade.

The construction and bonding bills passed by House members Friday, along with a 11.9-cent gasoline tax increase approved earlier this summer, will start several major road-building projects for the South Sound, including the long-delayed plan to extend four-lane state Route 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma and a new stretch of state Route 509 from Sea-Tac Airport to Interstate 5.

The transportation package also allows Sound Transit to ask voters next year in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties to approve up to $15 billion in taxes to build new system-extending projects, potentially including light-rail service to Tacoma.

“Some of our most congested communities will finally have hope,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island, House Democrats’ transportation chair, “that they have been stuck in gridlock and this is the answer.”

Lawmakers debated little before approving the last legs of the transportation package Friday, which had been held up by a late-emerging fracas over unrelated education bills.

Some Senate Democrats wanted to waive a biology test requirement for high school students for two years. The Republican-led coalition controlling the Senate needed Democrats’ votes to delay a voter-approved initiative for $2 billion in new education spending, causing a logjam through which the final transportation bills temporarily could not pass.

The $16.1 billion transportation package that emerged from the contentious session starts the first two years of projects on a 16-year list. South Sound residents are likely to notice it first at the gasoline pump: the first 7 cents of the fuel tax are to hit Aug. 1, with the remaining 4.9 cents coming next July 1.

Road construction will consume the majority of that money, with $8.8 billion slated to go toward new or rebuilt highways. In the South Sound, widening Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord with other adjacent work will run $494 million, and new legs of SR 509 and SR 167 for the Puget Sound Gateway Project are projected to cost $1.9 billion. Big-ticket highway projects around Spokane and Seattle will consume significant portions of the rest.

Thurston County projects include $72 million to rebuild the interchange of I-5 and Marvin Road in Lacey and $58 million for a bypass of state Route 510 through Yelm.

Some environmental groups had expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal, not least because a proposal by Gov. Jay Inslee to incorporate a low-carbon fuel standard didn’t make it into the final package. Nevertheless, Inslee told reporters Friday he considered it momentous the Legislature had sent a transportation package to his desk after the attempts of previous years foundered.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Inslee said. “This is the first time in 10 years that we’ve been able to make badly needed transportation investments in a growing and thriving state, and anyone who drives on our roads and gets stuck sitting in their cars knows that this is a long-overdue project.”

Although the transportation package will also purchase the state a fourth 144-car ferry — about midsize for its fleet — and fund some transit grants, the bulk of how it will affect mass transit for the Tacoma region are still to be determined. Sound Transit has not finalized the list of projects it will attach to the tax proposal it plans to send to voters, meaning that although projects such as extending light rail to Tacoma are a stated part of the multicounty agency’s long-range plans, they face competition from Seattle and points north and east to get a piece of the upcoming ballot proposal.

After the final votes came through Friday, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she is optimistic bringing light rail south from Sea-Tac to Tacoma will survive as a priority. The growing number of Pierce County residents commuting to Seattle jobs makes the project a necessity, she said.

“Seattle cannot continue to be an economic engine if people cannot get there to work,” Jinkins said. “Extending Sound Transit light rail into Tacoma is one of the keys to keep the region growing in the future, and it’s just too obvious.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-357-8693