Democrats in the Washington state House and Senate have agreed on what will likely be the final framework for funding a bevy of major transportation projects over the next 16 years.
The overall package will cost nearly $17 billion. While Democrats came to swift agreement early in the legislative session on funding the first $15 billion, they’ve struggled in recent weeks to decide where to pull the final $2 billion from amid blowback to their original proposal to tax exported fuel.
Negotiators have now landed on a mix of sources to fill the gap. An additional $57 million a year for the next 15 years will come from the state’s operating budget, said the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood. That’s on top of $2 billion already baked in to previous transportation proposals. Historically, the state’s general fund and transportation packages pulled from different pools of money. But the state’s budget is seeing a higher-than-expected inflow of cash and lawmakers agreed to lower the wall between the two.
Additionally, the package will count on another $57 million a year for the next 15 years from the state’s public works account, which collects taxes to finance low-interest loans to local governments. The House originally proposed diverting $100 million annually away from the account.
Public Works Board Chair Kathryn Gardow said in a statement she’s “disappointed” in the path legislators opted to take. “Without new funding, and the loss of these revenues, we will have to look at our numbers to see if we can run another loan cycle in 2023,” she said.
Liias said they are writing the allocations into statute, meaning future Legislatures would have to proactively cancel the transfers if they disagreed.
Liias said they also intend to increase the fee collected to check that a vehicle was not stolen from $15 to $50 for the next four years and then up to $75 after that. They’ve also revised upward their estimate of how much will be available in federal funding.
The Senate briefly considered diverting tax revenue away from the state’s Model Toxics Control Act account, but have now shelved that idea.
With just two days remaining in the Legislature’s short 60-day session, Democrats are short on time to get the transportation package — one of their top priorities this year — to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. They spoke glowingly of what it could accomplish for the state.
“I think this is a transformative transportation investment,” said Liias.
Republicans say they’ve been sidelined throughout the process and have so far not supported either the funding or spending sides of the transportation package.
“There was absolutely no input from from my side of the aisle, and, in my opinion, that shortchanges the citizens of the state of Washington,” said the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.
What initially looked like it would be a smooth victory for the Democrats has hit snags in recent weeks. Democrats initially proposed a new tax on fuel exported from Washington but dropped it following bipartisan outcry from neighboring states. They then proposed funneling away tax dollars first from the state’s public works account, then the Model Toxics Control Act account. Those also ran into opposition.
Now Democrats are hoping they can push their ambitious suite of transportation projects across the finish line with their new mix of funding.
The package, called Move Ahead Washington, would be the fourth major transportation budget measure in Washington in the last 20 years. But while the previous three were passed with bipartisan support in odd years, when the Legislature is in session for longer, this year’s was a largely Democratic effort. Rather than raise taxes on gas, as previous measures have done, Democrats are leaning on money from a new carbon pricing system in the state, federal investment and the flush general fund.
“I think that this particular Move Ahead package of revenues is about taking a step away from the way that we’ve always done it,” said Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.
The bill would make major investments in new or ongoing highway projects, including the Interstate 5 crossing into Oregon, Highway 520 into Seattle, Highway 18 and more. Road maintenance, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, fish culverts, the ferry system and transit service would also see significant windfalls.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate proposed using taxes from the sales of motor vehicles to fund transportation long-term, but Democrats declined to take up their proposal, unwilling to permanently commit so much of the operating fund.
Democratic leadership is expected to announce a broader agreement on the supplemental budget later Wednesday.