OLYMPIA – House Democrats passed a two-year, $8.4 billion spending plan for the state’s highways, bridges, ferries and bus systems on Tuesday, overcoming Republican objections about a controversial bridge over the Columbia River and the way tolls are set on roads and bridges.
“It’s a solid budget. It doesn’t have a lot of frills,” said Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
Although transportation budgets are often bipartisan bills in the Legislature, this proposal had several elements that caused some Republicans to balk. One is some $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing, a controversial bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland that critics say is poorly designed and too expensive, in part because of the inclusion of light rail capacity. Light rail exists on the Oregon side of the river but not the Washington side.
The state has spent 17 years and $180 million studying the bridge, Clibborn said, and the federal government is offering to kick in $850 million for the project.
“Do you move forward or do you start over?” she asked. “You essentially are shutting the door.”
But Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the money and time produced “a product that was horrible,” and the federal government is offering the state money for a project that many people don’t want.
An amendment to cut the bridge out of the budget failed, as did another GOP-backed measure to require the Legislature to set fees or tolls on bridges, toll roads and ferries rather than delegating that authority to the Washington State Transportation Commission, which is appointed, not elected.
Included in the bill is some $79 million for projects in Spokane County, about $68 million of which will go toward the North Spokane Corridor. In an amendment sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, any money saved in the next two years on this phase of the project would have to be spent on future portions of the longtime Spokane road project.
Also in the spending plan is nearly $4 million for the State Route 290/Trent Avenue Bridge over the Spokane River and $1.3 million for the U.S. 195/Cheney-Spokane Road intersection.
Riccelli said it was a good budget for Eastern Washington, with money for transportation projects that help farmers and local businesses, plus the Safe Routes to Schools program and the North Spokane Corridor.
Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said some of the priorities were misplaced, such as spending money for the State Patrol to set up traffic cameras to control speeders in some areas rather than giving the agency money to hire more troopers, and only supplying partial money for the North Spokane Corridor rather than the whole project.
“Clearly this budget needs a lot more work,” Shea said.
It will get more work. After passing on a 68-28 vote, the bill now moves to the Senate, where the dispute over the Columbia River bridge is among issues that have stalled that chamber’s version of a transportation budget.