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Some Washington lawmakers wonder if federal stimulus will be enough for transportation projects

UPDATED: Thu., March 25, 2021

U.S. Highway 2 passes under the North Spokane Corridor Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011 near Farwell Road. Transportation budget plans were released by the state House and Senate this week and propose spending $194 million on continued construction of the freeway in the next two years.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Highway 2 passes under the North Spokane Corridor Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011 near Farwell Road. Transportation budget plans were released by the state House and Senate this week and propose spending $194 million on continued construction of the freeway in the next two years. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The state’s transportation budget for the next two years will be tight, despite federal money potentially filling a revenue hole left by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House and Senate released separate transportation budget proposals this week, outlining their spending priorities for the next two-year cycle starting July 1. The House proposal, authored by House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, looks to spend $10.9 billion, while the Senate proposal, authored by Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs, would spend $11.7 billion.

“This is not the budget I wanted. This is the budget we need,” Hobbs, a Lake Stevens Democrat, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “We need to keep the lights on.”

Transportation revenue faced significant loss during the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer people driving, meaning fewer people buying gas, paying tolls or taking ferries. Some lawmakers have said the federal stimulus money can make up for that loss, but others don’t think it will be enough.

The Senate plan would use about $1 billion from the recent federal stimulus package to fill gaps in the transportation budget. Hobbs’ plan calls for $600 million to backfill pandemic-related revenue losses, from reduced gas tax, ferry and toll collections. Another $400 million would be used to remove culverts.

Similarly, the House plan would use $1 billion of federal money to backfill losses, address ferry operating needs and remove culverts.

Both proposals would provide $726 million to help meet the 2030 deadline the state must satisfy to comply with a federal order to remove culverts that block salmon.

However, with so many unknowns about how federal stimulus money can be used, it’s difficult to rely on it for the budget, Hobbs said.

The federal package allows some funds to be used “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.” What improvements fall into those three categories remains to be seen.

Fey told transportation committee members Tuesday that without the federal money, the state would have had to make “severe cuts.”

Both proposals outline funding for projects in Spokane. Continued construction on the North Spokane Corridor would receive $194 million in funding for the next two years. Spokane Republican Mike Volz, who sits on both the transportation and capital budget committees, said it looks like the North Spokane Corridor project is “back on track.”

The full project lists outline other projects and agencies, including the Spokane Transit Authority, receiving funding for the next two years.

Volz called this current budget “a starting point” that doesn’t have any new revenue tied to it.

The current proposed budget is the “status quo,” said Spokane Valley Republican Mike Padden, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee.

The proposed budgets are a continuation of what is already being funded, Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli said. Any further funding and projects will depend on whether the state passes a transportation revenue package this year.

House Democrats introduced a revenue package earlier this session that would invest $26 billion in transportation by raising gas taxes and carbon fees. Although Democratic lawmakers have said tax increases are needed, they’ve been less clear how hard they will push for a large package. Some pieces of the plan, however, are still alive, including a “cap-and-trade” bill and a clean fuels standard proposal.

That package could speed up construction on the North Spokane Corridor and also fund a bus rapid transit line on Division Street, Riccelli said.

There’s no way the state can make new investments this year without a revenue package, Riccelli said.

Padden said he opposes a gas tax increase.

Both the House and Senate transportation budgets received public hearings earlier this week. They will be up for a vote out of their respective committees on Thursday.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the district Sen. Steve Hobbs represents. He is from Lake Stevens.


Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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