OLYMPIA – The state Senate on Wednesday proposed a $4.3 billion transportation budget that would include $38 million more for the North Spokane Corridor and $250,000 for work on a dangerous highway intersection in southwest Spokane.
Both fall far short of the ultimate price tags for those projects, but local lawmakers called it a victory to get any new money in a plan that also calls for saving money by delaying work on 31 other projects.
“This really was the only significant project that was added on,” Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said of the north-south freeway money.
Marr also said that he’s continuing to push for $14 million to build what state transportation officials say is the best fix for the intersection of U.S. 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road: a bridge over the highway.
The House is expected to release its own transportation plan soon; the two versions will be reconciled into a final budget.
The Senate is also calling for a study of how the state, which relies heavily on gas tax revenue to pay for roads, can keep paying those bills as motorists continue switching to high-mileage and electric vehicles.
“We have a long-term problem: Cars are getting more efficient, and people are driving less,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. While that may be good for the environment, it also means that the state is collecting less gas tax than expected.
In fact, Haugen said, it now looks like recent gas tax increases that were expected to pay for 16 years’ worth of transportation projects will be used up by 2015. So the budget also calls for a study of how else to get people to pay to use the roads.
“The fact is, gas tax is the most unreliable tax going forward,” said Haugen. “I don’t know what the fuel of the future will be, but I doubt it will be petroleum.”
Several lawmakers said Wednesday that the state may eventually have a “vehicle miles traveled” tax based on how much people drive. Haugen also said that toll roads will become more common.
“We’re looking at those sorts of things. They’re years away,” said Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island.
Marr said he’s talked with electric-car advocates about whether they’re willing to pay a tax in lieu of gas tax. They seemed open to the idea, he said.
“Let’s face it, (electric cars) create wear and tear and congestion on the highway system,” said Marr. It’s not fair, he said, for the costs to be born just by gas and diesel users.
The Senate budget would pay for more than 400 projects, as well as four new small car ferries. It cut $120 million in rail projects, but Haugen and others said that some of that work is likely to be done with federal money instead. It also includes millions of dollars for transportation for disabled people, rural public transportation, and commuter van pools.
Marr and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown in November proposed a slimmed-down version of the North Spokane Corridor. Fewer lanes and other changes cut the price tag for the freeway’s next stretch from $720 million to $285 million. That would cover a three-mile stretch of new highway from Francis Avenue south to the Spokane River. The $38 million in the Senate budget would pay for changes in environmental plans and buying land.
Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead, who tried unsuccessfully to pass a law steering more money into the $3 billion project, said he was “relieved and heartened” by the Senate plan. But he said that lawmakers must find a way to pay for the rest of the project.
The $250,000 for the U.S. 195 intersection was a late addition to the budget, prompted by the January death of 16-year-old Lorissa Green. Green, trying to cross the freeway at dusk, pulled out in front of an oncoming pickup and was killed. Family members and supporters packed a House hearing earlier this month to call for changes to improve visibility of oncoming vehicles. Reps. John Driscoll and Kevin Parker said they’ll push to get the work in the House budget as well.
“We just need to push as a community for this improvement,” said Spokane City Councilman Michael Allen, who was in Olympia on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, local attorney Steve Eugster told city officials that they could quickly improve safety at the intersection by lowering the highway speed limit.
The council has that power, so long as the state secretary of transportation agrees, he said.
“Any ordinary person knows the intersection is dangerous,” Eugster wrote to the council. It’s particularly dangerous to inexperienced or timid drivers, he said.
Allen said the council has asked city lawyers to look at the idea.
“It might be a short-term alternative,” he said.