After years of legislative dithering over Washington’s long-term infrastructure plans, the transportation network remains frayed and in need of investment. A transportation package now advancing through the Legislature, however, needs some solid bipartisan refinement before the Democratic leadership pushes it to Gov. Jay Inslee.
Democratic transportation leaders drafted the legislation without consulting their Republican counterparts. Bills arrived stymied after being negotiated in this echo chamber when a better process could have produced stronger results.
There’s a lot to love about what $16.8 billion “Move Ahead Washington” proposal over 16 years would do for the state’s intricate network of roads, bridges, public transit and ferries. There is also something to worry about. Democrats who control both legislative houses should have learned from the long-term care tax debacle passed in 2019 with single-party support. This troubled law had to be suspended at the start of this legislative session to give policymakers time to fix its apparent flaws.
The transportation proposal relies on dubious sources of billions of dollars to fund major projects. At the same time, it leaves money in the general fund that would be wise to invest in necessary maintenance that the state regularly lacks.
It is deeply disappointing that the authors of the proposal – Transportation Chairs Sen. Marko Liias of Everett and Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma, and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle and Rep. Bill Ramos of Issaquah, all Democrats from Puget Sound – eschewed the age-old tradition of two-piece transportation solutions. Bipartisan majorities in 2003, 2005 and 2015 passed major infrastructure investments by agreeing to raise gasoline taxes. This year’s package comes with no gasoline taxes or increased government bond capacity. It would be about the same expense as the 16 billion dollar tab for the 2015 package, reflecting the considerable investment that this editorial board has called for on several occasions. The fact that the details of the proposal were only made widely available to elected Republican lawmakers shortly before the general public got them is not good faith governance. Their districts geographically represent a larger portion of the state, with rural populations heavily dependent on national road connections.
This approach is far from good legislation. Conversations across the aisle can bring to light more than ideological disagreement. Constructive debate can reveal structural weaknesses – and political responsibilities – in time for effective revisions. There’s still time for bipartisan influence to improve ‘Move Ahead Washington’ before the House duplicates the party line vote the Senate produced for approve the bill on Tuesday.
Many aspects of the so-called “Move Ahead Washington” are strong arguments for approval. The package creatively uses one-time federal money for infrastructure and excess state coffers to meet construction needs. The $2.4 billion for fish passage culvert repairs would conclusively meet a court-ordered 2030 deadline that draws closer every month. The package also makes good use of revenue from ‘cap and invest’ carbon legislation – which the law says must tackle climate change and carbon emissions – to boost the ailing ferry system, adding four new electric hybrid boats and by converting two existing large ferries. to hybrids. Investing $3 billion in statewide public transit, including free rides for those under 18, will improve equitable mobility.
It also fills a huge $1.4 billion shortfall to complete WSDOT highway projects, including I-405 and the Montlake Bridge on State Route 520, as well as completing the Puget Sound Gateway. of the 2015 package of State Routes 167 in Pierce County and 509 in King County. . These connections to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma will become essential freight connections when post-pandemic traffic completely clogs I-5. These roads must be finished after 30 years of insufficient progress.
A $3 billion increase in highway maintenance, over 16 years, would close the gap between repairing and preserving needed highways and what Washington pays for. A January WSDOT estimate reported that the state has spent only about 55% of the $1.01 billion annually on repairs the highways need. The new money would raise that figure to 73%. The Legislature is expected to close the remaining gap in 2023. Lawmakers should seriously consider directing vehicle sales taxes from the general fund budget to maintaining the roads they rely on, which has supporters among Democrats and moderate Republicans and could have helped pay for that transportation package without adding new costs to residents.
To avoid increasing gas taxes, Liias and Fey took their divining sticks to search for other sources of money. They proposed a new tax of six cents a gallon on fuel shipped out of state. This compresses Oregonians and others who cannot vote their objections. However, the US Constitution prohibits tariff wars between states, and the governors of OregonIdaho and Alaska have already filed public objections.
If successful, an expected legal challenge could wipe out $2.1 billion earmarked for road construction, prompting hasty cuts or replacement taxes.
Under the radar, Washingtonians would also feel the tax; gas stations as far as Centralia and Pasco receive their gas from distributors in Oregon. This brings into play a very real possibility of double taxation of in-state and Washington export fuel taxes, which will no doubt go through the whole hog at the pump.
Another $1.4 billion flow comes from raising the basic fee for new license plates from $10 to $50, a heavier surcharge on a well-worn $3,000 clunker than on a high-end luxury car. range of $130,000.
Involving elected leaders from across the political and state spectrum in crafting this proposal could have mitigated these vulnerabilities in time to build legislation on a stronger foundation. Washington State needs much of the investment in this proposal. There is still time before the Legislative Assembly adjourns on March 10 to both fix vulnerabilities and pass the long-needed transportation package.
Even the federal government has gone to great lengths to address bipartisan concerns when investing in the nation’s transportation in 2021. Strengthening infrastructure should also mean building political bridges in Olympia.