For more than two years, politicians in Olympia have failed to reach agreement on a transportation package to pay for major highway projects and transit service.
Despite a looming 16 percent cut in Metro bus service and a queue of $21 billion in unfunded highway, ferry and transit projects, progress on a transportation deal remains as stuck as Bertha — the damaged tunnel-boring machine sitting inert under Seattle’s waterfront.
Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative negotiators say they hope to try again in the 2015 session. But some key lawmakers and other close legislative observers sound skeptical.
“The reality is it’s public perception that’s going to be in our way,” said state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
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Raising the gas tax is never an easy sell to voters — the proposals considered this year included a 11.5 cent-per-gallon increase — and observers said recent bad publicity surrounding Bertha and cracked Highway 520 bridge pontoons makes it even more difficult.
“We need a little more good news out of the tunnel project. A big push in Olympia to get a gas tax passed next year, while Bertha is having some challenges, makes the defense of that gas tax pretty difficult,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
Bertha, the giant drilling machine working on the state’s Highway 99 tunnel project, has been idle since December and isn’t expected to resume until next spring. Tunnel contractors have sought an extra $125 million related to the delay.
And in January, lawmakers were told redesigns, repairs and delays related to cracks in pontoons for the new Highway 520 bridge would boost the project’s cost by $170 million.
The 2015 Legislature is already facing a major task in writing a budget to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, which found the state has violated its constitution by underfunding public schools. The expected debate over how to channel billions of additional dollars into education could make it difficult for lawmakers to tackle other thorny topics.
“I think it’s much, much more unlikely now that there will be a (transportation) package than at any time in recent memory,” said Cliff Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters.
Seeking Senate control
Democrats are pinning their hopes on taking control of the Senate from the Republican-dominated coalition that never put a transportation package up for a vote. The Democrat-controlled state House did pass a gas-tax package last June.
Inslee said voters can make a choice in November. “They’re going to have a say on who ends up in Olympia in January. I hope it’s people who want to move forward in transportation, because our economy needs it,” he said in a recent interview.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said he hoped lawmakers “would finally step up and do the job they are elected to do.” But, he said, “It is my belief that will only happen when there is a change in the roster of the Senate.”
Both Clibborn and Senate Democratic leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, accused Senate Republicans of continually shifting objections to a transportation package.
The package, funded mainly by the gas tax and higher vehicle-weight fees, would have paid for highway expansions and fixes including long-sought widening of Interstate 405 from Renton to Lynnwood and completion of Highway 167 in Pierce County. It also would have added money for road maintenance, ferries and bicycle-pedestrian projects.
Senate leaders rejected accusations they’re to blame and said Democrats bear the responsibility for the lack of a gas-tax package. “In all honesty, I felt the other side of the aisle didn’t want to take a vote … on a tax increase in an election year,” said state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
“They sent us a package that they all knew was not a reasonable package,” King said.
King acknowledged a significant slice of the Republican-dominated Senate majority was opposed to raising the gas tax, but said he’d lined up 13 votes out of the 26-person caucus.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, a moderate who floated a compromise plan in an attempt to restart negotiations, said there was blame to go around. He said the tea party Republican faction in the state Senate was a big culprit, but he also criticized Democrats and interest groups who dug in their heels on some suggested reforms.
The Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus this year was made up of 24 Republicans and two renegade Democrats.
One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom of Medina, announced recently he will not seek re-election. His exit gives Democrats a better chance at retaking the Senate.
But Tom said no matter who controls the Legislature, the public will demand reforms and cost controls before agreeing to raise their taxes.
Senate negotiators demanded changes to prevailing wage standards for transportation projects and sought to shift sales tax paid on roads projects to the transportation budget. They also wanted to take money from a toxic-cleanup account to pay for highway stormwater runoff projects — a move environmentalists opposed as an unwarranted raid on the funds.
“I don’t think the election changes anything,” Tom said. “Clearly people want reforms.”
The case for changes
Mike Ennis, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, said voters bombarded with media coverage of the Bertha delays and 520 bridge errors will demand changes before agreeing to new taxes.
“They need some assurances that any sort of tax increase is going to be used appropriately and efficiently and you are not going to have these mistakes going forward,” he said.
Any vote to bond gas-tax money, as is usually done to stretch tax dollars, requires a 60 percent majority of the Legislature, making bipartisan support important, Ennis noted.
Republicans also have seized on the recent rejection by King County voters of a sales- and car-tab tax increase that would have staved off Metro bus cuts and funded road repairs. Proposition One was rejected by 54 percent of county voters.
“Our majority’s case for reforms is stronger than ever. Those who continue to resist transportation reforms at the state level simply need to look at the King County transit vote to realize that they’re on the wrong side of the people,” state Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, said in a statement.
Democrats lamented that King County had to push ahead with the tax vote because of the Legislature’s failure. King County had pushed for a different local-option tax — part of the transportation package that failed in Olympia — which officials said would have been more palatable.
As a result of the vote, Metro managers are planning to cut bus service, including the elimination of 72 bus lines, in phases. A group of Seattle activists has launched an initiative to avoid cuts in the city through a property-tax increase.
Clibborn, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, said negotiators will talk again. But she said it was a shame lawmakers could not come to a deal in Olympia this year, especially since there was widespread agreement on major elements — including the funding sources and highway-project list.
“It’s very frustrating that we can have so much agreement on the meat of the proposition … so what we got stuck on was ideology,” she said.
Transportation reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Seattle Times archives.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner