IN 2003, with Republicans holding a razor thin majority in the state Senate and Democrats narrowly controlling the House, negotiators worked feverishly behind closed doors. In talks that famously included an all-night “pajama party”, lawmakers reached bipartisan agreement on a gas-tax-funded transportation package.
A similar approach worked two years later, with closed-door negotiations producing a 9.5-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax that had both bipartisan support and was ultimately endorsed by voters.
This year, with a political divide similar to 2003, the Legislature is unnecessarily high-centered on transportation. A dozen negotiating sessions in December between the House, Senate and the governor’s office left the sides unable to sputter across the finish line to a deal on a $12 billion transportation package.
It’s hard to imagine that either of Gov. Jay Inslee’s predecessors, Chris Gregoire or Gary Locke, would have taken his subsequent political approach — demanding the Senate vote on an unfinished deal — considering the earlier precedents of transportation packages arriving through negotiations.
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The failure to reach a compromise is frustrating, because the House and Senate leaders are surprisingly close, with general agreement on funding methods, including a gas-tax increase of at least 10 cents per gallon.
The deadlock is also frustrating because the state’s infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade. Existing funding is too thin to pay for basic maintenance, let alone untangle job-killing, soul-crushing traffic bottlenecks across the state, from Tacoma’s routine gridlock at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to the North Spokane Corridor to the clogged freight corridors leading out of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
The Senate Majority Coalition, with 24 Republicans and two Democrats, have the better overall approach, with an emphasis on finishing projects already under way, such as Highway 520’s western landing.
Its package also injects needed reforms into building roads, including streamlined environmental permitting to speed up design. For wrongheaded reasons, the state also imposes sales tax on its own transportation projects, essentially taxing itself. The Majority Coalition package smartly redirects a portion of sales taxes on projects back into transportation, rather than the general fund.
Those reforms will be critical to convince voters who have good reason to be leery of the state Department of Transportation’s recent debacle with the Highway 520 pontoons. And make no mistake: this package is headed to the ballot, either through a deal or through a citizen’s initiative.
A final hurdle involves funding for transit, bike and pedestrian projects, which Seattle Democrats view as critical for their support, and for voter approval. The differences between the House and Senate proposals are minor in the scope of a $12 billion package. A compromise can be reached.
What’s missing is political will to reach across the divide and get transportation negotiations back on the road.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).