Courage required for transportation deal this year

This legislative session began with a ray of hope that lawmakers could find agreement on a transportation revenue package.

But with just 15 days left in this 60-day session, that light is dimming quickly and for the wrong reasons.

Last spring, the House passed a transportation package funded by an increase in gas taxes. The Republican-led coalition that controls the Senate couldn’t agree. It wanted more time to gather public input. Good idea.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima initiated a “listening tour” last fall that visited 10 cities around the state. It took hours and hours of public testimony but has produced no progress.

Perhaps Senate Republicans didn’t like what they heard: Voters who represent business, labor, conservation and civic action groups are united behind the need to invest in a 10-year transportation improvement plan.

The House is waiting for the Senate to pass a transportation bill so the two legislative chambers can begin meaningful negotiations. But, so far, division within its own caucus has stymied Republicans from bringing a transportation revenue package to a vote.

That’s disappointing because Senate and House leadership have expressed consensus on the need for a transportation bill and how to fund it – a gas tax increase of about 11 cents per gallon.

But it appears Senate Republicans don’t have enough votes within their own ranks to pass a package. It’s likely the extreme conservative wing opposes any tax increase, especially during an election year. Others in the caucus want state Department of Transportation reforms before asking voters to approve a gas tax hike.

It’s true that recent DOT blunders, such as the $200 million mistake in designing the 520 bridge pontoons, will cause some people to question the efficiency and competency of the agency. A compromise package should address those concerns.

Lawmakers will find it more difficult to agree on diverting some of the sales tax revenue generated by transportation projects from the general fund. Republicans want a portion returned to transportation.

As a matter of public policy, that wouldn’t be an unreasonable request, but in these tough budget times it leaves a multi-million dollar pothole in the road toward fully funding K-12 education. Republicans haven’t offered to fill that gap, apparently content to take money away from public schools or other programs.

And let’s be clear: Moving money from the general fund into transportation doesn’t reform the DOT or create any new agency efficiency. It’s more likely this demand is ideologically driven, designed to further reduce spending on social services.

Still, bipartisan agreement remains within reach if a few Senate Republicans value public safety and giving the state’s economy a boost over coalition unity. We hope they find the courage to act in these last days of the session.