Gov. Jay Inslee says a meeting has been set for Oct. 29 for legislative leaders of both parties to discuss a transportation package for the next legislative session. This comes after senators conducted a listening tour around the state.
If all parties approach these negotiations with “doable” foremost, a plan should emerge that can launch projects vital to Washington.
The Senate Majority Coalition, comprised of Republicans and a couple of Democrats who voted with them in the last session, did not pass a transportation bill before adjourning. The House did, and it included a gas tax and some increased fees. Senate leaders were concerned about $450 million that was committed to the Columbia River Crossing, a new bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland that would include light rail. Inslee has taken that off the table, which has raised hopes that a deal can be struck.
Senators also want reforms in how projects are regulated and financed before signing off on a gas-tax increase. This will be main sticking point at the upcoming meeting. The coalition has some sound ideas for reform, but holding out for too many of them is unrealistic.
The state must do a better job of managing projects as the $81 million engineering error on the Highway 520 Bridge project shows. Permitting could go more quickly; as in the quick replacement of a collapsed Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River Bridge, for example. Inslee told the editorial board Wednesday that requests for greater efficiency are valid.
But some Senate requests aren’t politically feasible. For instance, ensuring that all money raised from transportation projects stays in transportation accounts is an interesting idea, but proponents are downplaying the impact to the general fund. Painful cuts to other programs is the consequence they don’t dwell on.
As the U.S. House Republicans demonstrated during the government shutdown, it isn’t realistic to extract major concessions on controversial issues from a minority position. Until Republicans gain control of the House or governsorship, it’s counterproductive to hold up transportation projects until they get their way.
So a calculation must be made. How many sessions are they willing to see come and go without a major transportation package? In our view, one is too many. The sooner the state makes the investment, the sooner it will benefit. These projects are not going to get any cheaper. We know it’s difficult to take a vote on a gas tax increase, but raising sufficient revenue without it is impossible.
In 2010, the Washington State Transportation Commission concluded the state needs another $175 billion to $200 billion over the next 20 years. Major employers such as Boeing can only accept clogged roads for so long before looking elsewhere to do business. Agriculture must get its commodities to ports.
But the maintenance budget that passed last session is $1.1 billion lower than the previous biennium’s. The North-South Corridor got $4 million less. This is unacceptable in a trade-dependent state.
Gridlock at the negotiating table will mean gridlock for the economy. We can’t afford inaction.