OLYMPIA – Legislative Republicans say they will block any proposed gas tax increase or other new fees on vehicles until the state makes major reforms in the way it builds big road projects.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who has urged the Legislature to find new money for road and bridge projects, agreed the state Department of Transportation needs reforms to restore public confidence. But he doesn’t think the state should delay a decision on taxes for new projects and needed maintenance.
“We cannot allow these problems to derail us,” Inslee said.
Responding in part to controversies over cracked pontoons for Lake Washington’s Highway 520 Bridge and the cost of the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, House Republicans said Wednesday they will introduce a package of reforms to increase accountability and lower costs of all road projects.
Among the proposals: Exempt transportation projects from sales tax, use less stringent federal regulations and sell 15-year bonds rather than 30-year bonds so project construction costs are paid off by the time they need major maintenance.
House Democrats last week introduced a plan to raise gas taxes by 2 cents per year for five years, as well as raise the motor vehicle excise tax to raise as much as $10 billion for large projects, ferries, road maintenance and public transit.
Republicans are in a minority in the House, but they dominate the bipartisan coalition that runs the Senate, where GOP leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, agreed it was time to get serious about reforms.
“There are zero reforms, zero cost-saving measures” in the House Democrats’ plan, Schoesler said. The Senate Transportation Committee, which has a co-chairman from each party, is expected to ask Inslee’s pick for state Transportation Secretary, Lynn Peterson, during confirmation hearings how she plans to prevent cost overruns and “boondoggles,” he added.
Inslee said he had confidence in Peterson, who until recently served as adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Transportation Department, like all state agencies, will undergo reforms to become more efficient, and those responsible for problems like the faulty pontoons for the 520 bridge will be held accountable, he said.
Cracks in the pontoons can’t be allowed to become “a crack in our confidence,” he said. “Fix it and move on.”