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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Senators’ state transportation package a good start

The $15 billion transportation package proposed last week by a bipartisan group of senators would go a long way toward addressing the sorry state of Washington’s roads, railroads and mass transit.

If it goes anywhere.

The 11.5 cent gas tax increase and other revenue components are already drawing fire from conservatives like Sen. Brian Dansel, who represents two counties – Ferry and Pend Oreille – that from 2004 to 2012 were among the biggest net beneficiaries of the gas tax.

Measures to limit costs will antagonize labor. Environmentalists are faulting the proposal for inadequately addressing non-vehicular transportation and emissions.

Gov. Jay Inslee seconded those complaints, and added another: Sales taxes generated by highway projects will be dedicated to future road work instead of being diverted to the general fund. But those concerns do not amount to a “no,” at least so far.

No counterproposal yet from the House, which last year approved an $8 billion transportation package that underwhelmed senators.

Credit Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King for thinking big.

The magnitude of the new package, incorporated in eight separate bills, reflects Washington’s challenge. Roads in every corner of the state cannot efficiently carry traffic.

Although Puget Sound-area highways would get – and need – the bulk of the funding, Eastern Washington would do extremely well.

For Spokane, the big must-do remains the North-South Corridor, ticketed for $862 million to finally close the connection to Interstate 90. At least eight other area projects would get funded.

King, from Yakima, recalls a flight over the first leg of the North Spokane Corridor, and being pointedly reminded that it remains uncompleted while another project begun at the same time in the mid-1950s – the SR 520 bridge – is already being rebuilt.

There’s $50 million for the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad, where a derailment last month blocked traffic for three days. The track bed cannot support fully loaded grain cars. The Central City Line proposed by the Spokane Transit Authority is ticketed for $10 million.

The revenue to pay for all this would be generated by the gas tax increase, rolled in over three years, and higher vehicle weight fees. With gas tax revenues diminishing with every improvement in automotive technology, shifting some of the burden to weight makes sense, although new aluminum and carbon-fiber bodies will eventually have the same effect as hybrid engines.

Overall, the Senate bill balances reforms, revenues and road work well. King said he hopes to move the necessary legislation out of his committee by the end of the week. That’s a very fast track, but if the Legislature is going to finally get something done this session, it will take an aggressive start.

The state must act while gas prices are low and the federal government dithers over raising cash for the highway trust fund. Doing nothing ensures gridlock on critical roads and a missed opportunity to boost Washington businesses. A recent study estimated a $7 billion investment in transportation would yield a fivefold return to our economy over 30 years.

Imagine doubling that with the Senate proposal. Time to get going.