After years of legislative dithering over Washington’s long-term infrastructure plans, the transportation network remains frayed and in need of investment. A transportation package now advancing through the Legislature, however, needs strong bipartisan refinement before Democratic leadership pushes it to Gov. Jay Inslee.
Democratic transportation leaders wrote the legislation without consulting their Republican counterparts. The bills arrived hobbled from being negotiated in this echo chamber when a better process could have produced sounder results.
There is much to like in what the $16.8 billion, 16-year “Move Ahead Washington” proposal would do for the state’s complex network of roads, bridges, transit and ferries. There is also much to be concerned about. The Democrats who control both legislative houses should have learned from the debacle of the long-term care tax passed in 2019 with only one-party support. That troubled law had to be suspended early in this legislative session to give policymakers time to fix its apparent flaws.
The transportation proposal relies upon questionable sources for billions of dollars to fund important projects. At the same time, it leaves money in the general fund that would be wise to invest in the necessary maintenance the state routinely shortchanges.
It is profoundly disappointing that the proposal’s authors — transportation chairs Sen. Marko Liias of Everett and Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma, and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle and Rep. Bill Ramos of Issaquah, all Puget Sound Democrats — eschewed the time-honored tradition of two-party transportation solutions. Bipartisan majorities in 2003, 2005 and 2015 passed large infrastructure investments by agreeing to raise gas taxes. This year’s package comes without gas taxes or raising state bond capacity. It would be about the same spend as the $16 billion tab for the 2015 package, reflecting the sweeping investment this editorial board has repeatedly called for. That details of the proposal were not broadly available to elected Republican lawmakers until shortly before the general public got them is not good faith governing. Their districts represent more of the state geographically, with rural populations deeply reliant on state-road connections.
This approach falls short of good lawmaking. Conversations across the aisle can spotlight more than ideological disagreement. Constructive debate can reveal structural weaknesses — and political liabilities — in time for effective overhauls. There’s still time for bipartisan influence to improve “Move Ahead Washington” before the House duplicates the party-line vote the Senate produced to approve the bill Tuesday.
Many aspects of the so-called “Move Ahead Washington” are strong arguments for approval. The package creatively uses one-time federal infrastructure money and the surplus in state coffers to take care of construction needs. The $2.4 billion for culvert repairs for fish passages would conclusively deal with a court-ordered 2030 deadline that grows closer every month. The package also makes good use of “cap-and-invest” carbon legislation revenues — which by law must address climate change and carbon emissions — to boost the ailing ferry system, by adding four new electric-hybrid boats and converting two large existing ferries to hybrids. The $3 billion investment in statewide transit, including free rides for people under 18, will improve equitable mobility.
It also fills an immense $1.4 billion shortfall to complete WSDOT road projects including I-405 and the Montlake bridge on State Route 520, as well as the 2015 package’s “Puget Sound Gateway” completion of State Routes 167 in Pierce County and 509 in King County. Those connections to the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma will become essential freight linkages when post-pandemic traffic fully clogs I-5. These roads must be finished after 30 years of insufficient progress.
A $3 billion boost to highway maintenance, over 16 years, would narrow the gap between needed highway repair and preservation and what Washington pays for. A January WSDOT estimate reported that the state has been spending only about 55% of the annual $1.01 billion in repairs highways need. The new money would boost that to 73%. The Legislature should close the remaining gap in 2023. Lawmakers should give serious consideration to directing vehicle sales taxes from the general fund budget toward maintaining the roads they rely on, which has supporters among moderate Democrats and Republicans and could have helped pay for this transportation package without adding new costs for residents.
To keep from raising gas taxes, Liias and Fey took up their divining rods to quest for other wellsprings of money. They came up with a new six-cents-a-gallon tax on fuel shipped out of state. This squeezes Oregonians and other people who can’t vote their objections. However, the U.S. Constitution forbid state-on-state tariff wars, and the governors of Oregon, Idaho and Alaska have each already lodged public objections.
If successful, an expected court challenge could eradicate $2.1 billion earmarked for road construction, sparking hasty cuts or replacement taxes.
Under the radar, Washingtonians would feel the tax too; gas stations up to Centralia and Pasco get their gas trucked up from Oregon distributors. This puts into play a very real possibility of double taxation from Washington’s in-state and export fuel taxes, which will doubtless pass through whole-hog to the pump.
Another $1.4 billion stream comes from hiking new license plates’ base fee from $10 to $50, a harder surcharge on a well-worn $3,000 clunker than for a new-money indulgence $130,000 high-end luxury car.
Involving elected leaders from across the political spectrum and the state in the crafting of this proposal could have smoothed these vulnerabilities in time to build legislation on stronger footing. Washington state needs much of the investment this proposal contains. There’s still time before the Legislature adjourns March 10 both to fix the vulnerabilities and pass the long-needed transportation package.
Even the federal government went to great lengths to address bipartisan concerns when investing in the nation’s transportation in 2021. Shoring up infrastructure ought to mean political bridge-building in Olympia, too.