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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bipartisan agreement sends $15 billion state highway bill to Senate

OLYMPIA – Bipartisan negotiations may have broken the Senate gridlock over how to fix problems with the state’s roads and bridges, generating a plan to spend nearly $15 billion over 16 years, including about $970 million in the Spokane area.

There are some potential potholes and detours in its way: It requires an 11.7 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax over three years starting in 2016, something that Republicans have been reluctant to approve. It could channel sales tax money from road construction projects out of the general fund and into transportation accounts, which Democrats say hurts the state’s ability to meet court orders on education spending. It does not call for low carbon fuel standards, which Gov. Jay Inslee wants.

But it does represent the biggest move toward a comprehensive transportation fix in the Senate, which for two years has failed to pass any kind of plan for new road and bridge projects.

The list of projects released Thursday afternoon includes $861 million to finish the North Spokane Corridor. Also on the list are $23.6 million for the Medical Lake and Geiger interchanges on Interstate 90, $15 million for safety improvements on U.S. Highway 395, $13.5 million for a passing lane between Colfax and Spangle, and $10 million for the Spokane Transit Authority for the Spokane Central City Line.

While praising the package as a step forward, it is so new that the negotiators – two Republicans and two Democrats – said they couldn’t estimate how many votes they could get from their respective caucuses.

“We have all the votes we need to bring it to a hearing next week,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, said it will be up to him and other negotiators to work out disagreements and sell the idea to colleagues and the state’s voters, although there’s no plan at this time to require voter approval for the tax hikes.

The current plan is to raise the gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon on July 1, 4.7 cents a year later and 2.5 cents a year after that.

Inslee, who earlier Thursday had chided Senate Republicans for criticizing his carbon reduction initiative without countering with a proposal of their own, called the plan “a strong start” with money for needed projects. But it needs more analysis, he added.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who for the past two years produced transportation packages that passed the House only to die in the Senate, called it an important first step. But it must pass the Senate before negotiations can occur.

Senate passage is not assured. Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, said Thursday he wouldn’t vote for the gas tax increase, saying it would hurt struggling families and businesses. Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said some of her members would oppose a plan to lower wages and apprenticeship requirements on road projects.