Transportation tax plan has benefits

Getting a gas tax increase approved in the Legislature happens less than once a decade. But the 2015 session is on the verge – in a third overtime – of doing it.

Perhaps the biggest, most politically difficult piece of the $16 billion, 16-year transportation package is done: the 11.9 cent gas tax increase. It passed both chambers of the Legislature and only needs Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature before the first phase – 7 cents – gets tacked onto each gallon of fuel on Aug. 1.

That first increase raises the state share of the gas tax to 46.5 cents per gallon.

Overall, the package of taxes and spending has flaws, but its benefits outweigh the costs, at least in the short term. The plan pays for sorely needed projects in Thurston and Pierce counties, and it completes major projects elsewhere in the state while allowing Sound Transit to expand its light rail in central Puget Sound counties.

Unfortunately, two related transportation budget bills – one that lets the state issue bonds that pay for projects and another that lists the projects to be funded – are hung up in a Senate dispute over unrelated education bills. The House is holding onto both measures, which already passed in the Senate, until that dispute is resolved; waiting lets the House deal with all remaining bills (including education) in one shot, according to House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

Only 54 House members voted for the gas tax increases, but Sullivan said he’s confident the Republican and Democratic caucuses can deliver the 59-vote super-majority needed for passage of the bonds.

We hope so. Funds for South Sound projects include $72 million to rebuild the Interstate 5 interchange at Marvin Road in Lacey, $58 million for state Route 507’s bypass around Yelm, and nearly $500 million to widen I-5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Further north, there is financing to complete state Route 167’s wider link to the Port of Tacoma, a major outlet for shipping that could spur tens of thousands of jobs in the region, according to backers.

But in the long term, the plan has shortcomings:

• The transportation package fails to link investments to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The transportation sector causes about 45 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions, the largest source in the state. But lawmakers rejected a cap-and-trade plan that would have put a price on carbon emissions and used some of it to pay for transportation.

• Inslee agreed to a “poison pill” that takes away state transit investments if the governor enacts a clean fuel standard via Department of Ecology rules. Inslee had proposed a clean fuels law to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

• The budget falls short on funding for fish passages under roads. Treaty tribes sued to improve stream flows under state roads and highways, and some 825 fish-friendly culverts are needed. The state may need to spend about $2.4 billion to comply with a 2013 federal court injunction. The budget provides some $300 million over 16 years, which is more than in the past, but a fraction of the estimated $310 million per biennium that would comply with the injunction.

• It shifts millions of dollars from sales taxes on highway projects out of the state general fund and back into road construction budgets, effectively cutting the general fund, which pays for schools and state operations.

Yet the budget agreement strikes a political balance that completes major projects around the state such as the North Spokane corridor and the Tacoma port project. It also allows Sound Transit to ask central Puget Sound voters to approve up to $15 billion in taxes to extend the region’s light-rail network.

Politics is the art of the possible, and in a sharply divided government this may be the only deal we’d see. But not addressing climate change is short-sighted, something we will come to regret in time.