The 10-year, $15 billion proposal relies on a carbon fee, six-cent gas tax increase and impact fees on developers as its largest sources of funding.
A key state Senate committee gave early approval Wednesday to the state’s latest major transportation-spending package: a $15 billion plan to maintain and widen highways, fix culverts that impede fish passage, electrify ferries and partially fund a replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.
The vote advances the latest fight in Olympia about infrastructure, taxes and how the state will address climate change, although debate could last years.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, relies on a carbon fee that business interests oppose and environmental groups say doesn’t go far enough. The spending plan includes culverts, addressing an environmental priority for salmon recovery, but it’s also heavy on roads.
The package also would charge developers fees and extend a measure that would discourage Washington from adopting a low carbon fuel standard. In other words: lobbyists on all sides are finding things to like and dislike in the plan.
The deal remains “a work in progress,” Hobbs said. It now will go to another Senate committee before a full Senate vote and, if passed, on to House deliberations. It’s unclear whether lawmakers there would approve it.
The legislature is set to be in session until April 28, but traditionally it takes years of legislative debate to pass transportation packages, including the $16 billion package passed in 2015.
Hobbs’ 10-year proposal relies on a carbon fee, a six-cent gas-tax increase, and impact fees on developers as its largest sources of funding.
The carbon fee would charge $15 per metric ton of carbon pollution on the sale and use of fossil fuels in Washington, translating to around 15 cents per gallon for consumers, according to a spokesman for Senate Democrats. Utilities would pay $10 per metric ton.
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Impact fees would be charged on new construction and would be at varying rates for residential, commercial and manufacturing projects. The package includes a smattering of smaller funding sources, including a 50 cent per trip fee on taxis and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft.
The costliest projects in the proposal are Washington’s share of the I-5 bridge replacement (nearly $3.2 billion), fish-passage-barrier removal ($3.5 billion), a rebuild of the aging trestle on westbound Highway 2 ($1.6 billion) and ferry vessel and terminal projects ($1.7 billion). (The I-5 and Highway 2 totals also include expected federal funding and toll revenue.)
The Highway 2 trestle is located in Hobbs’ district. He also has emphasized the need for the Legislature to comply with a federal court order mandating that Washington fix culverts that block fish passage.
“This is a ticking time bomb,” Hobbs said Wednesday. “Remember McCleary? We just kept on punting and punting and punting. That’s a tradition here. So I’m hoping to address it now.”
In Seattle, the proposal would fund $29 million in safety improvements for the troubled Aurora Bridge.
The package would direct funding to various grant programs for bike, pedestrian and transit projects through a new “flexible account.”
In total, about 8 percent of the funding would be for “multimodal” projects, compared with 29 percent for new roads and another 12 percent for roads preservation and maintenance, according to Hobbs’ office.
Spending on stormwater improvements and culverts makes up 29 percent and electrification (including ferries and electric-car incentives) accounts for 16 percent.
Notably, the bill also would make permanent a “poison pill” provision that became a partisan sticking point on the state’s last transportation package, passed in 2015. The provision discouraged Washington from adopting a low carbon fuel standard by diverting transportation dollars away from transit projects if the state adopted such a standard. A low carbon fuel standard would require fuel producers to reduce their products’ carbon emissions; opponents say it would increase gas prices.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat now running for president on a pledge to address climate change, opposed the ban but eventually dropped his opposition to make way for the deal.
Hobbs said last month that he included the language “to get business support.”
Inslee championed a carbon tax last year, but he has not taken a position on Hobbs’ package, according to the governor’s office. Hobbs said in February that Inslee was “not happy” with the fuel-standard provision.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, co-sponsored Hobbs’ proposal, although she said she wouldn’t vote for it as originally proposed. Saldaña opposes the attempt to block a low carbon-fuel standard and believes the carbon fee should escalate over time, she said.
Saldaña offered an amendment Wednesday to gradually increase the carbon fee and direct the money to bike, pedestrian and transit grant programs, passenger rail and a new ferry. She also proposed allowing local governments to eventually impose low carbon-fuel standards if the state doesn’t.
Both Hobbs and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the top Republican on the committee, opposed those ideas and the amendments failed.
“As much as I don’t like a carbon tax, I like a low carbon fuel standard even less,” said King, who also voted against the full package.
The carbon fee, fuel standard and spending mix are likely to remain issues as the debate continues.
While some transit advocates may balk at a roads-heavy package, “there are parts of our state that don’t have transit and still need to get around,” Saldaña said. “That’s the balance of working at the state level.”
Projects like culvert removal and the I-5 bridge replacement, which could carry transit as well as cars, also are necessary, Saldaña said.
Business lobbyists have supported proposed roads projects but argued against the carbon fee and impact fees. Washington voters have twice in recent years rejected carbon-fee measures.
“That’s generally not a good recipe for using it to fund transportation,” said Mike Ennis, government-affairs director at the Association of Washington Business.
Ennis said his group’s members support transportation-infrastructure projects and believe gas taxes are the “best” and “fairest” way to fund them.
Environmental and transportation groups support some of the spending but say the carbon fee may not go far enough, and they oppose the prohibition on a low carbon fuel standard.
Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director at the Transportation Choices Coalition, praised “a lot of new and interesting proposals for revenue sources that go beyond the gas tax.”
Under the state Constitution, gas-tax revenues can only be used on highway projects. But Mesher’s group argues a higher percentage of the package should go toward projects for bikes, pedestrians and transit.
Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters who has lobbied on past transportation packages, said the traction Hobbs’ proposal gets will depend on whether the battling sides are any closer by the end of this legislative session.
“Transportation packages that bring labor, business and environmental interests together take a lot of time,” Traisman said. “I’ve never seen one done quickly before.”