After failing to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package in 2021, Washington state legislators are now mulling how they can resume the effort this year to make major investments in the state’s highways, ferries and transit.
As elected officials enter a short 60-day session, negotiating a multi-billion-dollar agreement could be a tightrope walk. The talks will unfold before the backdrop of billions in delayed maintenance projects, transit systems that are overstretched and understaffed, a highway system struggling to meet the needs of Washington residents and an election 10 months away.
Both sides of the aisle are interested in spending more on transportation. The size and scope of those investments remains a point of debate.
The Democrats who chair the House and Senate transportation committees say they’re hopeful a funding bill can survive the quick session. But unlike in 2021, top Democrats are hesitant to propose a hike in the state’s gas tax – the backbone for previous funding proposals – at a time when the state’s operating fund is exceeding expectations, families continue to struggle during the pandemic, federal money is available, and a new carbon pricing law is scheduled to take effect in 2023.
That it could be a difficult election year for Democrats adds to their reluctance.
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, takes over this year as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee after Sen. Steve Hobbs decamped to become Washington’s secretary of state. A more transit-forward legislator than Hobbs, Liias said he will not propose raising taxes on gas. He believes the Legislature could produce $12 billion to $15 billion for transportation projects with current and future state money — federal dollars, revenue from carbon pricing, and, in a shift in approach, a onetime tapping of the state’s operating fund.
“Is this a time to add additional costs when families are still struggling to get through the pandemic?” he said. “I think what I’m hoping to do is sort of take a breath, take another look and find some of these more holistic solutions that can lead to good outcomes for everybody.”
Liias said his approach would not address all of the state’s transportation needs, but would represent a significant step in the right direction.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they’ve had few conversations with the majority Democrats so far.
“I’m not sure [a package] is going to happen in this session,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation committee. “It’s a short session, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion, we have a new chair in the Senate — a very capable chair, but a new chair — and normally in the past our transportation packages have been bipartisan. From a Democrat, Republican point of view, there hasn’t been a lot of talk across the aisle.”
Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he’s open to conversations about a bill that does not include new taxes. So far, his interactions with Democrats have been limited, he said. He would like to see the Legislature set aside roughly $3 billion for maintenance and improvements between now and 2027 by tapping into the state’s operating fund and repurposing certain sales taxes.
Certain projects will top legislators’ lists of priorities: the beleaguered ferry system, which has struggled with crew shortages and trip cancellations; the 520 highway’s Montlake interchange; adding bus lanes to interstate 405; a possible trestle on Highway 2; fixing the state’s culverts for salmon; and the long-discussed I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.
The state also faces a deficit of up to $1 billion every year for maintenance, according to the Washington Department of Transportation.
At the same time, advocates, the governor and some legislators want to see major progress toward reducing carbon emissions and improving transit access. The transportation system makes up 45% of the state’s carbon emissions.
“We know that we have to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 50% and we need to electrify the remaining 97% of trips,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the progressive Transportation Choices Coalition, which supports passage of a large transportation package. “The need to take meaningful action, that gets us pointed towards transportation modernization, that allows us to achieve those goals, needs to happen right now.”
In his proposed supplemental budget, Gov. Jay Inslee is pitching more than $1 billion in additional spending for transportation, financed by dipping into the state’s operating fund and through money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and the new federal infrastructure bill. The centerpiece is $324 million to build or convert three electric-hybrid ferry boats and another $40 million to ease staffing shortages that have plagued the ferry system.
Inslee is also proposing $100 million a year for a rebate on the purchase of electric vehicles.
Barkis said Inslee’s climate agenda threatens what he sees as more pressing issues around maintenance and highway improvements. “It boils down to prioritization and we have to prioritize the limited resources that we have,” he said.
But Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, said he and other more progressive Democrats are determined to strike a parity between highway projects and “multi-modal” investments in more transit options. Nguyen, for example, wants free bus fares for anyone under 18.
Previous transportation-specific packages — in 2015, 2005 and 2003 – were structured around increases to the state’s gas tax. Last year, both House and Senate Democrats returned to this formula, proposing $26 billion and $17 billion measures, respectively, that would have seen fees and taxes on gas increase to up to a dollar a gallon. The Legislature didn’t pass a package.
The Legislature did approve a new carbon pricing system — in which carbon credits must be bought and sold — set to take effect in 2023, that could bring more than $5 billion through 2037. The state will also receive around $3 billion in new funding from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.
Shortly after accepting his new position on the transportation committee, Liias said he started canvassing members on their appetite for a gas tax. He found it lacking, in large part because of the newly available pots of money. Instead, “I started floating this idea of, what if we scaled back and just did the most emergent things, just like we’ve had to do on so much stuff because the pandemic,” he said. “We’re gonna have to take this in a phased way.”
“What’s clear is, there will be some needs that remain not fully addressed,” he added.
Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who barely won re-election in 2020 after facing a challenge from the left, said he’s “optimistic” a funding bill will come together and agreed it can and should be done without raising the gas tax. “If you can do a package without a gas tax, I think it’s a huge win,” he said.
On the House side, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, was more circumspect about the chances of a package. “It’s still possible, but it’s a very difficult situation given the 60 days,” he said. “And it’s also the case, for the House Republicans, there doesn’t seem to be much openness to it.”
Historically, transportation packages live apart from the state’s larger operating fund. But as revenue from tolling and gas taxes are both expected to taper off, that precedent is getting a new look.
“At the core, we should not be talking about a transportation revenue package,” said Barkis. “We should be talking about transportation funding and future revenue. What is going to be our sustainable revenue for the next 10 years to meet the demand without having to renegotiate a package?”
“You’re dealing with revenue sources that are kind of suspect,” agreed Fey.
In the past, packages have also been bipartisan deals. But while Democrats, who control the Legislature, would welcome Republican support, said Nguyen, bipartisan support is not a deal breaker. “Certainly there is a rational basis for us to have this in a bipartisan fashion,” he said, namely because the legislature needs a 60% majority to issue bonds. “But at the same time, this is too important for us to wait.”