Last week, mass transit, bicycling and pedestrian advocates were celebrating with “cookies and confetti” the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars headed toward alternative transportation projects and programs approved by the Washington state Legislature and signed into law by the governor.
This week, as Gov. Jay Inslee contemplates enacting a low-carbon fuel standard, the celebrations have halted and the alarms have been sounded.
By enacting stiffer fuel standards requiring more biofuels in gasoline to reduce carbon emissions, and putting the state in line with California, Oregon and British Columbia, Inslee would trigger the “poison pill” provision in this year’s transportation budget package. The pill, which was demanded by Senate Republicans and agreed to by Inslee, wipes away non-automotive investments if Inslee tries to enact the fuel standards by executive action before 2023.
“If he does this, what he leaves are transportation projects that encourage people to drive. It’s not even one step forward and two steps back. It’s just two steps back,” said Barb Chamberlain, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Washington Bikes. “Time is of the essence in people speaking up. He could do this any minute and the minute he does, it’s done.”
Inslee’s spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, laid blame on Senate Republicans and said the governor is weighing what action would have the clearest benefit in battling climate change, something he’s long advocated for as an elected official, both in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor.
“He has not made a decision and he has not set a timeline for a decision,” Smith said. “But he’s also been very clear: He wants to have clean air.”
Statewide, the amount of funding at risk for non-auto projects and programs is difficult to gauge. The governor’s office estimates that upwards of $2 billion in funding is tied to the poison pill but pointed to Senate staff for more accurate numbers because “they concocted the whole thing.”
Senate staff agreed with the estimate, pegging the funding at about $2 billion overall.
Washington Bikes estimates $235 million in direct spending for bike and pedestrian projects would be lost. The Puget Sound Regional Council figured about $1.2 billion is at risk statewide.
According to the poison pill provision, this funding would be transferred to an account restricted to road and bridge spending.
Locally, at least $23 million in alternative transportation projects would be lost. Currently, Spokane is set to receive $8.8 million for the University District bicycle and pedestrian bridge, and $15 million toward Spokane Transit Authority’s Central City Line project.
Other funding would also be lost for the region, including a share of $56 million in Safe Routes to School funding that is doled out to 150 school districts statewide, as well as part of the $106 million in Complete Streets funding that Spokane and Airway Heights were expecting.
Councilman Jon Snyder, a proponent of alternative transportation, said he supported the governor’s efforts to combat climate change, but he warned Inslee against sacrificing non-auto funding.
“Climate change is really the challenge of our lifetime. We are arguing how to act, not when to act, in this situation,” Snyder said, noting that spending on transit, cycling and pedestrian projects are the “linchpins in our strategy to combat climate change.”
Snyder said Spokane and Yakima have the most at stake in Inslee’s decision. Yakima is expecting $6 million for new buses and trails from the transportation package.
“Just like Yakima, we don’t have the tax base of Puget Sound to draw upon to get these projects done in another way,” Snyder said. “We really need state assistance on this. We’ve gotten so little, especially for buses and transit, over the years, which is why this is such a big deal for us.”
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, called the transportation funding “a huge win for Eastern Washington” and noted that $1 billion in funding is headed to the Spokane region.
The vast majority of this funding is not at risk, Baumgartner said, notably the $879 million dedicated to completing the North Spokane Corridor. Instead, he said, the governor’s credibility and the state’s bond rating are at risk.
As one of 18 Republican senators to vote for the transportation deal and its 11.9-cent gas tax increase, Baumgartner said he didn’t feel betrayed by the governor “walking back on the deal.”
“It’s a bait and switch really on the Democrats and a betrayal of the Democrats who built this coalition,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and illogical for the governor to do this. … Some side of his base is going to have to lose.”
Baumgartner defended the poison pill provision as necessary, arguing that Inslee’s consideration of an executive action proves its necessity.
“The teeth of the poison pill will remain in effect,” he said. “You can see why we had to play the defense we did.”
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, rejected such thinking.
“Let’s be clear. We’re in the position because Senate Republicans asserted that we need to have this inserted to pass the transportation package,” he said. “These are false choices that are being pushed on people, to choose between the transportation package or some significant action on climate change.”
Still, Riccelli, who sits on the House transportation committee, wants the non-auto dollars kept where they are, and he urged Inslee to take a different course than executive action, which is the only way the poison pill is triggered.
“I’m very supportive of keeping the multimodal dollars where they’re at,” he said. “I think we need to take action on the climate, but I think there are other strategies, whether they be legislative or by ballot initiative.”
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