The Democrats who control Washington’s Legislature should not strain themselves with exultant back-patting. Their accomplishments lack an immense piece of necessary business: an infrastructure package to preserve and update state bridges, transit and ferries. Gov. Jay Inslee should summon the Legislature back into session this year to take care of this top-tier priority.
Lawmakers enacted important policing and environment reforms. But their efforts should have been better focused on crafting a transportation package to win majority floor votes than on stretching to justify a high-earners capital-gains tax already headed for the courts because it may violate the state’s prohibition on income taxes.
The state’s bridges and roads need a decade or more of robust maintenance, preservation and reconstruction. The sooner that work starts, the sooner the benefits can be realized and the risks of emergency closures averted. That’s justification enough for a special session, but add a few political considerations as well.
The first is that the environmental reforms, including a carbon-reduction approach and a low-carbon fuels standard, will be dead in the water if the transportation package does not move forward. That was a deal lawmakers made for votes.
Second, next year’s legislative calendar is a “short” session. With no budget to write and election-year campaigns to run, lawmakers will have just 60 days to introduce, debate and pass bills. Complex transportation packages require extensive time to work out project priorities and how to fund them. The state passed large transportation packages in 2015, 2005 and 2003 — all years with a “long” 105-day session.
Additionally, a federal infrastructure package proposed by President Joe Biden appears to have support from the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. That package is to address an array of national transportation needs while lifting the post-pandemic economy with construction jobs. Both benefits can be compounded for Washington residents if the Legislature fills in gaps in the federal plan with the state’s many needs. If federal money arrives to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, that’s great. But Washington will still need to address the West Seattle Bridge, the U.S. 2 trestle and other big deficiencies on lawmakers’ extensive project lists.
Significant pieces are largely in place already. The “grand bargain” some lawmakers talked up passed, linking new carbon limits to infrastructure investment. The Legislature-passed “cap and invest” pollution mechanism also increases the gas tax a nickel per gallon and may put about $500 million a year toward carbon-reducing transportation projects, such as ferry and bus electrification.
The climate-focused governor should exercise leadership and drive this deal home. Time is of the essence for improving infrastructure. Lawmakers should convene to improve state transportation as soon as the outcome of the federal infrastructure proposal is known.