OLYMPIA – Senate negotiators will begin the push today for a package of new road projects and improved maintenance that could complete the long-discussed North Spokane Corridor and raise gasoline taxes by 11.5 cents over three years.
The package of 10 related bills, with a total price tag of $8.7 billion for projects all over the state, gets a formal airing at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing this afternoon. Whether it will prompt a special session or just lay the groundwork for more debate next year is unknown. . .
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. . . “There’s still work to be done,” David Postman, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday. Discussions with legislative leaders and the administration are scheduled for Friday. Inslee is declining public comment on the package until those take place.
The price tag and the final gas tax rate are higher and the list of projects different from a plan approved by the House earlier this year. One of the biggest changes among the projects is the amount proposed for what has long been the Holy Grail of Spokane road projects, the corridor to connect U.S. 395 to Interstate 90, which some still call by its earlier name, the North-South Freeway.
The House plan offers $350 million for the next phase of that project. The Senate proposal sets aside $750 million to finish it.
The boost in corridor money, along with some Eastern Washington projects, could pick up support from Republican senators east of the Cascades, who would otherwise balk at raising the gasoline tax by 4 cents in 2015 and again in 2016, and by 3.5 cents in 2017. It has no mention of the bridge between Vancouver and Portland, which doomed transportation packages in the Senate earlier this year. Companion legislation also calls for reforms in the way the state Department of Transportation plans and oversees projects, and for a shift of sales tax money from construction projects out of the general fund and into road construction.
Whether that can pick up a majority in a coalition-controlled Senate without killing its chances in the Democratic-controlled House remains to be seen. Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville and Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, are supporting it as a way to get the corridor built, once and for all.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said Wednesday he was reserving judgment. He likes the proposed reforms but is concerned about the size of the package and the size of the tax increase.
“I’m not sure I’ll support it with that (the full funding of the corridor) but it would be more of a problem without it,” Padden said. Whatever the Legislature decides, either in a special session this year or the regular session in 2014, would likely go to the voters, he said.