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Collapse could motivate Legislature to pass projects

Sat., May 25, 2013

OLYMPIA – The collapse of a section of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River could spur the Legislature into action on the much-debated transportation package with its increased gasoline taxes, but some of that action could be to rearrange how money is spent.

Sen. Tracie Eide, D-Federal Way and a co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, called the collapse a “wake-up call.” In a prepared statement she said the Legislature “cannot delay any longer on moving forward with a long-term investment strategy to meet our state’s infrastructure demands.”

Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, one of two Democrats in the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate, said the accident could be “a game changer,” sparking more discussion over the package in what has so far been a quiet special session.

Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, chief negotiator for House Republicans on the operating budget, agreed the collapse should generate momentum behind a transportation package. But he thinks the spending will have to be revised, with more emphasis on repairs and maintenance, either in the current 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,” Alexander said.

Unknown at this point is what the bridge collapse, which may be a result of an accident rather than any structural deficiency, will do to debate on one of the biggest sticking points in the package, the Columbia River Crossing bridge between Vancouver and Portland. That’s also on the Interstate 5 corridor that stretches from Canada to Mexico, it’s about 40 years older than the Skagit River structure, and it is also rated as “functionally obsolete.”

The current iteration of the transportation package could raise between $8 billion and $9.5 billion over 12 years – in part by raising gasoline taxes over time by 10 cents per gallon – for construction of new projects and maintenance or restoration of existing roads and bridges.

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” the package is needed and the Legislature needs to stop “partisan bickering.”

But Rep. Joel Kretz of Wauconda, the second-ranking Republican in the House, said some people who are tying the bridge collapse to higher transportation taxes and spending seem to be following an old political axiom: “Never let a tragedy go unexploited.”

The tax package in its current form spends relatively little on repairs and maintenance, Kretz said. The bridge collapse is a tragedy but apparently has nothing to do with maintenance on the bridge, he added.

Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat on the Transportation Committee, supports more funding for transportation projects. He isn’t sure the accident will give momentum to the proposal but said it does highlight the need to maintain roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

“Fixing what we have should be one of the priorities in any plan,” Billig said. But there’s never going to be enough money to do all the maintenance and preservation work in the state, he added.

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