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Legislators explain transportation stall
An inability to compromise is being blamed by 41st district legislators for another failure in Olympia to pass a transportation package that would have meant funding for major road projects on the Eastside.
The Washington Legislature passed a supplemental budget before adjourning its session March 13, but left key issues like education, marijuana reform and a transportation package unresolved.
There were fewer disagreements about what major transportation projects to fund than there was about the funding measures needed to pay the bill, according to Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
The package was anticipated to fund Eastside projects that included completion of the new SR-520 floating bridge – without tolling the I-90 bridge – an SR-167/I-405 interchange project and adding HOT Lanes on I-405 from Bellevue to Renton.
Clibborn, chairwoman for the House Transportation Committee, said the transportation package passed by the House last year remained on the table and ready for amending once the Senate provided a bill of its own. The Senate didn't, and now the House bill faces expiration before the next legislative session in January.
Litzow, who serves on the Senate Transportation Committee, said Democrats fought a Republican proposal to redirect sales tax for transportation projects from the state general fund back into funding transportation. He said if taxes were to be raised under a package – an 11.5 cent per gallon increase to the state gas tax – taxes for transportation should go back to transportation.
The Senate plan pushed by negotiators in the Majority Coalition Caucus would have taken $800 million in transportation tax revenue from existing projects, said Clibborn. She said she's concerned about the $2 billion the state will need to provide for public education following the McCleary decision.
"I didn't have the votes for it and neither did they," said Clibborn. "... They kept putting it out and we kept saying, 'Show us the votes.' "
Litzow said the House plan approved last year was a $9 billion project "wishlist" with no funding measures.
"How do you spend $9 billion and not put any money into 520?" said Litzow. "... It was more of a political gesture."
Clibborn said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, with the MCC came up with a $480 million compromise on transportation sales tax that would have been spread out for Safe Routes to School and public transportation. That didn't gain traction, either.
But the House was not ready to back down because it had an approved plan.
"I already have something that 51 people voted on," said Clibborn, adding transportation tax was the flaw Democrats couldn't get behind in the Republican-majority MCC plan. "We were in agreement with 98 percent of that package. ... The problem is you can't take that much money out of the general fund. You don't have any votes for it."
Senate Republicans also had set out to implement transportation reforms after a summer listening tour by members of the MCC across the state, where Litzow said there was a lack of public faith in the state department's ability to effectively carry out future transportation projects.
A design error on the 520 bridge project has caused cost overruns of more than $170 million, and the final portion of that project remains unfunded with the lack of a transportation package. WSDOT has also faced criticism over the Bertha breakdown that has halted boring a replacement tunnel for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
"The public has lost confidence in the state's ability to actually manage these large projects, so if we're asking for $12.5 billion, we want it to be clear that we're going to change the way we're holding the department of transportation accountable," said Litzow.
Clibborn said the House pushed a number of reform measures proposed by Senate Republicans through its plan last year, but it still didn't produce a plan the Senate could pass in 2013.
"We were not hung up on the reform package," she said. "I think (Republicans) used it because they didn't want to vote for the tax."
Clibborn said she welcomes a call by Gov. Jay Inslee for a special session to continue negotiating a plan. Litzow said he doesn't think it will be effective.
"The only way the governor would call a special session is if we sat down and struck a deal," he said.
A transportation package this year wouldn't have funded any local projects, but it would have paid to alleviate congestion on state highways that continue to push motorists onto Bellevue streets looking to cut down on their drive time, said Dave Berg, city transportation director.
The Bellevue City Council every year submits a legislative agenda to lawmakers highlighting what projects and issues they want addressed, and transportation continues to be a high priority.
"If the regional system isn't functioning, that spills over to our city streets, and we see that every day when it's a rainy day or there's an incident," he said. "... We see spill-over from the congestion on southbound 405 onto the city arterials daily and that's all the way to 148th (Avenue Northeast)."
Reacting to such a possibility of a standstill in the Legislature, the King County Council approved creating a transportation benefit district in February to fill a $75 million funding gap for public transportation and allot a portion of revenues to local road projects. The funding measure, which includes a $60 car-tab fee and one-tenth of a cent sales tax, will be decided by King County voters in April.
"I don't think the county has ever put a special election on an April ballot," said King County Councilmember Jane Hague of Bellevue. "We hope that people will vote, and we hope that people will study the issue."
The funding measure is anticipated to generate $130 million in revenue. But King County Metro also will lose $25 million in annual revenue when a $20 vehicle congestion reduction fee approved by the Legislature expires in June, when a reduction in transit services is set to occur. That will have an affect on 28 of the 33 Metro routes in Bellevue, including moving stops further from Bellevue College.
Also tied to the funding measure is a low-income fare of $1.25. Hague said ridership pays for 28 percent of Metro service in King County, which is more than many jurisdictions. A 25-cent across-the-board Metro fare increase proposed to begin in 2015 would raise another $6.6 million annually.
"Our riders here in King County are paying more per ride than almost anywhere else," said Hague. "... This measure is just about protecting what we are about to cut. We already have reduced them."
She said the 40 percent of revenue that would go to local road and other transportation projects would be a benefit to Bellevue.
"They can bond against it, they can use it to apply for other grants," said Hague. "That's a big deal for Bellevue because they're struggling with their capital infrastructure needs for roads and arterials."
Clibborn said transportation benefit districts could gain momentum in Washington, fractioning off the state into regional pacts, not all of which may have the ability to pass funding packages. She said she doesn't believe eastern Washington could make it work and would still need funding from the state, which is already running out of money.
Litzow said he understands not all Washington counties will wait for the Legislature to approve transportation funding – presumably in 2014.
"I think the counties have to step up and do what they believe is right for their individual county," he said.