Democrats and Republicans in Washington want to spend more on transportation. But what will the Legislature do?


After failing to pass a comprehensive transportation funding program in 2021, Washington state lawmakers are now considering how they can resume their efforts this year to make major investments in highways, ferries, and transportation. in common with the state.

As elected officials enter a short 60-day session, negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal could be a tightrope walker. The talks will take place amid billions of delayed maintenance projects, overloaded and understaffed transit systems, a road network struggling to meet the needs of Washington residents and elections in 10 months. .

Both sides of the aisle are interested in spending more on transportation. The size and scope of these investments remains a matter of debate.

Democrats who chair the House and Senate transport committees are hopeful that a fundraising bill can survive the early session. But unlike 2021, Leading Democrats are reluctant to propose a hike in the state’s gasoline tax – the backbone of previous funding proposals – at a time when state operating funds are exceeding expectations. , families continue to struggle during the pandemic, federal money is available, and a new carbon pricing law is expected to come into effect in 2023.

That this can be a difficult election year for Democrats adds to their reluctance.

Senator Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, takes over the chairmanship of the Senate Transport Committee this year after Senator Steve Hobbs scrambled to become Secretary of State for Washington. A more transit-oriented lawmaker than Hobbs, Liias has said he will not propose to raise taxes on gas. He thinks the Legislature could generate $ 12 billion to $ 15 billion for transportation projects with the state’s current and future money – federal dollars, revenue from carbon pricing and, in a change of approach, ad hoc use of the State’s operating funds.

“Is this the time to add additional costs while families still struggle to navigate the pandemic?” ” he said. “I think what I’m hoping to do is kind of take a breath, take another look, and find some of these more holistic solutions that can lead to good results for everyone.”

Liias said his approach would not meet all of the state’s transportation needs, but would represent a significant step in the right direction.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they have had little conversation with majority Democrats so far.

“I am not sure [a package] is going to happen during this session, ”said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the leading Republican on the Senate Transport Committee. “It’s a short session, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion, we have a new president in the Senate – a very competent president, but a new president – and normally, in the past, our transport packages. were bipartisan. From a Democratic and Republican perspective, there hasn’t been a lot of talk across the aisle.

Representative Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he was open to conversations about a bill that does not include new taxes. So far, his interactions with Democrats have been limited, he said. He would like the Legislature to set aside about $ 3 billion for maintenance and upgrades by 2027 by drawing from the state’s operating fund and reallocating some sales taxes.

Some projects will be high on legislators’ priority lists: the besieged ferry system, which has faced crew shortages and trip cancellations; the Montlake interchange of highway 520; adding bus lanes to Highway 405; an easel possible on Highway 2; repairing state culverts for salmon; and the long-discussed I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.

The state also faces a deficit of up to $ 1 billion each year for maintenance, according to the Washington Department of Transportation.

At the same time, advocates, the governor and some lawmakers want to see major progress towards reducing carbon emissions and improving access to public transport. The transportation system accounts for 45% of the state’s carbon emissions.

“We know we need to reduce vehicle kilometers by 50% and that we need to electrify the remaining 97% of trips,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which supports the passage of a large transport package. “The need to take meaningful action, which directs us towards modernization of transport, which enables us to achieve these goals, must occur now. “

In his supplementary budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee is forecasting more than $ 1 billion in additional spending on transportation, funded from the state’s operating fund and with money from the US Federal Law on Transportation. the rescue plan and the new federal infrastructure bill. The centerpiece is $ 324 million to build or convert three hybrid electric ferries and an additional $ 40 million to alleviate the personnel shortages that have plagued the ferry system.

Inslee also offers $ 100 million per year for a discount on the purchase of electric vehicles.

Barkis said Inslee’s climate program threatens what he sees as more pressing issues around highway maintenance and upgrades. “It comes down to prioritization and we have to prioritize the limited resources we have,” he said.

But Senator Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, said he and other more progressive Democrats were determined to achieve parity between freeway projects and “multimodal” investments in more transit options. Nguyen, for example, wants free bus tickets for anyone under the age of 18.

Previous transportation-specific packages – in 2015, 2005, and 2003 – were structured around increases in the state’s gasoline tax. Last year, the House and Senate Democrats reverted to this formula, proposing $ 26 billion and $ 17 billion respectively, which would have seen gasoline fees and taxes rise to $ 1 a gallon. . The legislature did not adopt a package.

The Legislature has approved a new carbon pricing system – in which carbon credits must be bought and sold – expected to take effect in 2023, which could bring in more than $ 5 billion through 2037. The State will also receive about $ 3 billion in new funding from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

Shortly after accepting his new post on the transport committee, Liias said he began to solicit members out of their appetite for a gas tax. He found it missing, in large part due to the newly available pots of money. Instead, “I started to float this idea of, what if we scaled down and just did the most emerging things, just like we’ve had to do so many things because of the pandemic,” he said. declared. “We’re going to have to take this on a gradual basis.”

“What is clear is that there will be needs that will not be fully taken into account,” he added.

Senator Mark Mullet, D-Tacoma, who was barely re-elected in 2020 after facing a challenge from the left, said he was “optimistic” that a fundraising bill would be developed and agreed that it can and should be done without increasing the gasoline tax. “If you can do a package without gas tax, I think that’s a huge win,” he said.

On the House side, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, was more wary about the odds of a package. “It’s still possible, but it’s a very difficult situation given the 60 days,” he said. “And that’s also the case, for Republicans in the House, there doesn’t seem to be much openness to it.”

Historically, transportation packages have lived outside the state’s larger operating funds. But with both toll and gasoline tax revenues set to decline, this precedent gets a facelift.

“Basically, we shouldn’t be talking about a transportation revenue package,” Barkis said. “We should talk about financing transport and future revenues. What will our sustainable revenues be for the next 10 years to meet demand without having to renegotiate a package? “

“You’re dealing with some pretty suspicious sources of income,” Fey agreed.

In the past, packages were also bipartite agreements. But while Democrats, who control the legislature, would welcome support from Republicans, Nguyen said, bipartisan support is not a deal breaker. “There is certainly a rational basis for us to have this in a bipartisan way,” he said, not least because the legislature needs a 60% majority to issue bonds. “But at the same time, it’s too important for us to wait.”

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