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Sat., June 8, 2013

Reforms, not taxes, needed

The recent and catastrophic collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River has brought a considerable amount of attention to the state’s Department of Transportation.

The political response from many on the left was to blame conservative Republicans for the bridge failure. These warped assertions suggest there is not enough money to fund necessary maintenance, so Washington residents must accept a new 10-cent gas tax so that the state can keep its bridges from falling down.

Gov. Jay Inslee was quick to insinuate that it was the truck driver’s fault. Some may have found his comments witty, but the commercial truckers (most of whom head small, family-owned businesses) aren’t laughing. This year, the governor is suggesting a significant tax hike on this group. He clearly did not consider the fact that if we increase the cost of transporting goods throughout the state, we lose jobs. Washington needs a system that reduces freight transportation costs, not one that uses it as a scapegoat and then taxes it so that more bike paths can be built.

When issuing trip permits for oversized loads, many other states will ensure that the load does not exceed the maximum height clearance along its route. If the DOT is going to permit a truck to travel, it would seem that the safety of the driver and the general public, as well as the security of the transportation infrastructures along the way, would take top priority. In Washington, DOT permits include a disclaimer that states it is not the responsibility of the DOT to guarantee bridge clearances. This is a prime example of a non-tax reform that could keep our bridges from collapsing and save our state money in the process. A number of bills have been discussed that would address this issue.

Next is the complaint about a lack of road-maintenance funds. During the past few months, taxpayers have been forced to swallow the $120 million-plus mistakes made involving the Highway 520 bridge on the West Side of the state, a bridge that was supposed to float but is now figuratively sinking. Our state maintenance funds aren’t lacking, they are just drowning under a Seattle “sweetheart” project.

These inconvenient truths suggest the real failure in Washington’s transportation system is not a lack of funding, but political gamesmanship. Instead of basing our transportation system on the economic and freight mobility needs of the entire state, decisions have been made to buy votes on non-transportation issues and pacify special interests, mostly from the Puget Sound bubble.

This year, the winds shifted in the Senate Transportation Committee, on which I serve. Many of us asked for a budget that called for a more rational approach that promotes reforms rather than new taxes. In light of the transportation failures that have headlined the news as of late, it only makes sense that we focus on necessary reforms before we talk about new revenue.

So, you may be wondering “Does this jeopardize North-South Corridor funding?” The truth is that the largess and waste in 2012 alone, some of which I touched on above, could have nearly funded the completion of the Spokane project. Unless reforms are implemented, that waste will continue again and again. The real threat to U.S. 395, just like road maintenance funds, is politics and not economics.

Nearly $100 million in funding for the corridor was provided in the two-year transportation budget signed by the governor last month. Rather than look at new revenue opportunities to fund its completion, we need to focus on the appropriate reforms for our transportation system and start prioritizing where the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings will be spent.

The Skagit River bridge collapse highlights how a state transportation system focused on the I-5 corridor leaves our state economically exposed and politically vulnerable. This is why those of us in Eastern Washington should be looking to move our products north and south, not just west. The bridge failure only emphasizes the fact that the North Spokane Corridor is critical to the economy and freight mobility of the entire state.

We East Siders are hardy stock and as our industry leaders demonstrate, we know how to find solutions others can’t see. We can finish the U.S. 395 corridor and implement a rational statewide transportation strategy without attempting to politically force a tax increase against the will of Washington voters.

Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, is serving his first term in the Washington state Senate, representing the 7th Legislative District. He can be contacted at

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