OLYMPIA -- The collapse of a section of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River could spur the Legislature in to action over the much-debated transportation package with its increased gasoline taxes, but some of that action could be to rearrange how money is spent.
Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, one of two Democrats in the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate, said he thought the accident was "a game changer" for debate on the package, which is one of three top prioritiesfor the special session listed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.
It should definitely provide impetus to discussions over the package in what has so far been a quiet special session, Sheldon said after presiding over a two-minute "pro forma" Senate session that essentially opened and then closed until Monday morning.
Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, chief negotiator for House Republicans on the operating budget, agreed that collapse should generate momentum behind some kind of transportation package. But he thinks the spending will have to be revised, with more emphsasis on repairs and maintenance, either in the package under debate or by amending the budget for existing transportation funds which the Legislature passed before the regular session adjourned.
"Frankly, I'd like to see us do more to protect what we have," said Alexander, who had just emerged from discussions over the 2013-15 operating budget, which is one of the other priorities for the special session.
Neither Alexander nor Sheldon were sure what the bridge collapse would do to one of the biggest sticking points in the package, money for the Columbia River Crossing bridge between Vancouver and Portland. Also a span on the Interstate 5 corridor that stretches from Canada to Mexico, the existing bridge is far older than the Skagit River structure -- It was finished in 1917, compared to 1955 -- and is also rated as "functionally obsolete."
The current iteration of the package could raise between $8 billion and $9.5 billion over 12 years through higher gasoline taxes and vehicle fees for construction of new projects and maintenance or restoration of existing roads and bridges. The cost of repairing the Skagit River bridge, and whether more than the one span that collapsed will have to be replaced, isn't known yet, nor is the state's share for a structure that's part of the federal interstate highway system. But state costs could become part of the package, Sheldon said.
The Washington State Labor Council, which helped organize a rally at the Capitol earlier this week to support the transportation package, said the collapse was a "sober reminder" thepackage is needed and the Legislature needs to stop "partisan bickering.".
"We need to invest in our infrastructure, including the Columbia River Crossing, now," Jeff Johnson, the council president, said in a press release. "We neeed to keep the public safe, keep our economy rolling, and put folks back to work."
But Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the package as it is currently drafted spends too little on fixing failing roads and bridges. That's unacceptable, Wilbur said in a prepared statement, and Inslee and House Democrats must "finally get serious about a transportation plan."