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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Washington House transportation proposal hefty at $25.8 billion, but needed for multimodal improvements

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, lower right, talks with Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, lower left, on the House floor, in this February 2020 photo.  (Ted S. Warren)
Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, lower right, talks with Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, lower left, on the House floor, in this February 2020 photo. (Ted S. Warren)

Someone, somewhere, once said we shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste.

Maybe it was Niccolo Machiavelli, Winston Churchill or Rahm Emanuel. One way or the other, the Washington state House Democrats had their crises to choose from when they heard the call last week and released an ambitious $25.8 billion transportation package that is substantially larger than any other in state history. It even bests dueling Senate proposals by a cool $10 billion.

Whether it was the prodding of the pandemic and recession that spurred them to such heights, or the ongoing climate crisis, it doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is the details: Over the next 16 years, more than $500 million would go toward bike projects. More than $2.6 billion in transit funding. Nearly $300 million for Safe Routes to School grants, and $60 million in Complete Streets grants.

Motorists, of course, would get the lion’s share of the money, with a total of $17 billion for highway-related projects, including $6.7 billion in new road investments.

The biggest line-item in the package allocates $1 billion toward the $3.2 billion project to replace the aging and inadequate Interstate 5 crossing over the Columbia River. No word yet if the bridge will include space for Portland’s light-rail MAX line – a “political third rail” that doomed previous efforts to replace the aging and inadequate bridge – but anything is better than the traffic pinch-point currently in operation.

Yes, the proposal is hefty. It’s a lot of money and it would help put the state on track to a multimodal, more environmentally minded transportation system, even considering the highway dollars.

“It’s a big package. It’s bold. And I think it’s good for Washington state,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat from Spokane who sits on the House transportation committee. “I’m glad we set the bar where it is for a really robust conversation.”

Riccelli was part of a group of six legislators who held 90 “listening sessions” over recent months to gauge what Washingtonians wanted in terms of transportation, and how much they’d be willing to pay for it. If the proposal is any indicator, they want everything.

Riccelli describes the package this way: “Protect what we have, finish what we started and make significant investments in multimodal.”

Despite its many laudable goals and practical investments, expect the House proposal to die. Why? Because it would raise gas taxes by 18 cents per gallon, a fact dwelled on by the first blush of coverage from the Seattle Times, Everett Herald, Bellevue Reporter, KING 5, KXLY-TV and nearly every other major outlet.

What’s more, the proposal also includes a carbon fee that would kick in on Jan. 1, 2023, at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted.

This fee is expected to add another 15 cents to a gallon of gas, if companies responsible for producing the carbon dioxide pass the cost onto consumers, which they surely will.

The Democrats were smart in how they allocated the gas tax and carbon fee.

The gas tax would be dedicated to highway expansion and maintenance, but the carbon fee would fund projects that decarbonize and electrify transportation.

Just a refresher: Washington has one of the highest gas taxes in the nation. At 49.4 cents per gallon, not counting the accompanying federal gas tax, it ranks only behind California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. By comparison, Idaho taxes motorists 30 cents per gallon.

The argument can be made that the federal government abdicated its responsibility and forced states to raise these taxes, considering the federal gas tax stands at 18.4 cents per gallon – the same it’s been since 1993, the year incoming U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg turned 11.

Another argument can be made that since motorists will receive the vast majority of the money and infrastructure from this package, they should pay for it. Not to mention that motorists in Washington account for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, so maybe they should pay to help drive them down, so to speak, which is what this package in part intends to do.

But Riccelli says their proposal does something that the state, and the feds, currently don’t do, which may make it palatable to people watching their pocketbooks.

It ties the tax to inflation.

“What’s different is the indexing piece. If we had indexed the gas tax, I’m convinced the preservation and maintenance piece would not be there,” he said.

In other words, if the gas tax had increased with the general increase in prices and purchasing power of the dollar, there’d be a lot more money in the state’s road preservation and maintenance fund, and therefore our roads would be in better shape.

What’s more, Riccelli said, is a user fee like the gas tax is preferable to bonding, or taking out a loan, for the work.

“If we bonded, we could get $4.6 billion, but the debt maintenance on that would be $3.5 billion,” he said.

Sounds great, but then again, maybe a time of massive unemployment isn’t the best time to raise taxes, especially in a way that hits the poorest the hardest, an argument being made by Republicans in Olympia.

Maybe if the state had a world-renowned transit system, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure to support it, this would be a different discussion. Yes, raising the gas tax is a good way to discourage car use.

Look at the European Union, where gas taxes are required to be equivalent to more than $1.50 per gallon and where transit ridership is much higher than in the U.S. But if someone can’t afford to pay the gas tax and has to ditch their car, there aren’t a lot of available options to get them to work or school, especially in Washington’s rural communities.

That’s where it gets complicated. The state is trying to build just such a system with this tax. At the end of the proposal’s 16 years, Washington very well may have a system that rivals those in Europe or Asia.

Which brings up the question: How do you build a system that benefits everyone without burdening the poorest people? Is there ever a good time to do it?

Also, as the consequences of climate change begin to visit us with regularity, can we afford to wait any longer?

“There’s no good time,” Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who leads the House Transportation Committee, told the Seattle Times. “We knew going into this that doing nothing was not an option.”

Riccelli has a different gambit. He said when he was in the “listening sessions,” he’d ask voters who wanted to raise the gas tax. Not a lot of hands went up.

“When I say – ‘Who wants to complete the North Spokane Corridor earlier?’ – the hands go up,” he said, noting that he believes the long-delayed east Spokane highway could be finished in 2026, three years earlier than anticipated, with this package.

“People don’t like” the gas tax, he said. “It is regressive, but if you tell them about the investments in multimodal, about trying to reduce carbon, and the number of projects like the North Spokane Corridor, their rhyme and reason changes.”

Work to watch for

Work has restarted on the Ben Burr Trail crossings where Perry Street intersects with Second and Third avenues. One lane each of Second and Third will be closed at Perry. This work includes crosswalk safety enhancements.

The southbound curb lane of Monroe Street is closed between Mallon and Boone streets, as well as the eastbound curb lane of Boone Street between Monroe and Lincoln streets, through Tuesday for CenturyLink work.

The northbound curb lane of Northwest Boulevard between D and G streets will be shifted into the median through Wednesday for Sefnco work.

The eastbound curb lane of Euclid Avenue between Altamont and Smith streets will be closed until the end of the week for Avista work.

The northbound lane of Bernard Street between 19th and 17th avenues will be closed and flagged both directions through Friday for Sefnco work.

The south curb lane of First Avenue between Stevens and Bernard streets is closed through the end of January for Sefnco work.

Wall Street between First and Second avenues is completely closed until Feb. 11 for Avista work.

The northbound curb lane of Grand Boulevard between Cliff Drive and Rockwood Boulevard is closed until Feb. 18 for Sefnco work.

The west curbside lane of Division Street between Mansfield and Shannon avenues will close Monday until Feb. 25 for Avista work.

The eastbound curb lane of Euclid Avenue between Nelson and Haven streets is closed through February for Sefnco work.

The two east lanes of Lincoln Street between Second and Main avenues are still closed due to Avista work, and are expected to be reopen April 5.

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