Public testimony before state legislators in Spokane Valley Wednesday night offered contrasting views on how to fund and build Washington’s transportation system at a time when gas tax collections are on the decline.
One group called for a transportation funding package, with higher taxes to pay for local roads, transit, bicycle and pedestrian paths and maintenance as well as big-ticket items like the North Spokane Corridor.
Others said don’t raise the gas tax, but do a better job of spending the money that is already collected.
The meeting at Central Valley High School was the sixth stop on a 10-city tour by the Senate Transportation Committee to hear what citizens and local officials think about the future of transportation and its funding. About 300 people attended and 100 signed up to testify.
Mayor Craig George, of Dayton, Wash., called for giving local governments more options in how they raise transportation funds.
George also asked for a city share of any new gas tax revenue, saying local transportation is a key to the economy. “As the city gets stronger, the state gets stronger,” he told lawmakers.
The hearing drew others supporting alternative transportation and urging safety improvements.
Karl Boehmke, of Pullman, said small cities are ideal for getting around on bikes and on foot. “But only when safe, well-designed pedestrian and cycling facilities are available will most people consider walking and biking,” he said.
Shawn Dobbs of the Inland Northwest Lighthouse, which provides jobs for blind workers, said transit is critical for getting workers to and from its facility on North Addison Street.
Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove, Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arévalo and others urged widening of state Highway 904 from Four Lakes to Cheney.
But lawmakers are facing a state Supreme Court mandate to increase K-12 education funding. Meanwhile, drivers have cut back on miles and vehicles are increasingly fuel efficient, lowering gas tax collections.
Michael Cathcart, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, called for completion of the North Spokane Corridor but argued against a gas tax increase, saying the public expects more out of the funds the state already receives.
Members of the Senate majority coalition, which includes Republicans and two Democrats, are pushing for a series of reforms, some of which involve shifts in current transportation funding.
Most notably, they want sales taxes paid by contractors on transportation projects to be funneled back to transportation projects and away from general fund services, including education.
Another proposed reform would end the requirement that contractors pay a prevailing wage on transportation jobs.
Gary Swartz of Local 86 machinists and aerospace workers said killing the prevailing wage law would be a mistake. “Washington is a progressive state, not some right-to-work state,” he said.
Still, the aerospace industry is threatened by gridlock in Western Washington, which slows movement of aircraft components from Triumph Composite Systems Inc. where he works, he said.
He and several other speakers called for legislative action before lawmakers would normally convene in January because transportation funding is that important to the economy.
“At the end of the day, we are talking jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said.
Cindy Zapotocky took the opposite view on prevailing wage, arguing that it keeps labor costs artificially high and puts an undue burden on small contractors attempting to compete with larger companies.
Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said his county is stressed economically and the county’s general fund budget is being balanced in part with transportation funds. He said small businesses in the county are struggling.
“Folks in my county have no appetite for increased taxes,” he said.