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

Judge upholds WA’s $17B transportation funding law

Crews will begin replacing the deck surface on the Maple Street bridge, shown Aug. 10, requiring lane closures through the fall months of 2023.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By David Kroman Seattle Times

A Thurston County judge Friday rejected a challenge to Washington’s $17 billion transportation funding package, passed in 2022, leaving in place the sweeping legislation that’s set to shape the state’s roads, bridges, ferries, transit and sidewalks for the next 15 years.

The lawsuit, filed by the conservative Citizen Action Defense Fund on behalf of a construction and a freight company, argued the bill contained too many provisions – united under a vague title – that were not closely related enough, therefore violating the requirement under the state constitution that legislation contain a single subject.

“The act’s myriad provisions embrace multiple subjects that are not relevant or related to one another and the act’s vague title, which is ‘related to transportation resources,’ does not give adequate notice to the vast scope, purpose and content of the bill,” argued Callie Anne Castillo, lawyer to the companies.

Castillo pointed specifically to lines in the bill increasing taxes on airplane fuel and laying out rules around carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

A lawyer for the state, Alicia Young, argued the challengers had not provided any concrete evidence the various pieces of the mega-bill were unrelated and were instead asking the judge “to rule based on gut.” In fact, she argued, the Legislature is entitled to pass large “omnibus” bills that converge on a single goal, in this case building and maintaining transportation resources.

“All of the provisions of (the bill) rationally relate to the Legislature’s overarching purpose of providing and protecting the resources necessary for statewide transportation system,” she argued.

The legal challenge was always going to be a longshot. As Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson explained, the standard for finding a bill unconstitutional is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and appellate judges have instructed lower courts to liberally side with arguments in favor of keeping a law in place.

Wilson said the plaintiffs made some fair points, particularly around sections of the bill regarding fuel standards. But in the end, they did not clear the high bar, she said.

“Broad does not mean invalid, and not directly connected does not mean there’s no rational relationship,” she said of the bill’s title and many different pieces.

Jackson Maynard, executive director of the Citizen Action Defense Fund, said of the ruling: “We respectfully disagree and are considering every option, including and especially, direct appeal to the State Supreme Court.”

The funding package passed in 2022 along party lines, with almost no Republicans voting in favor. Unlike past packages, which centered mostly around large highway projects, this one included Democratic priorities such as expanding funding for transit and pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

In its first full year of implementation, some warning flags are already being raised. Price tags on some of the state’s largest projects, including I-405 and Highway 520, have gone way up, threatening the funding measure’s ambitions. At the same time, both Gov. Jay Inslee and transportation secretary Roger Millar have warned there’s not enough focus on maintenance and preservation.