Democrats in the Washington Legislature want to spend $16.8 billion over the next 16 years on the state’s transportation system, releasing a proposal Tuesday that would shore up the state’s largest highway projects and promote transit ridership through grants for improved service and free ridership for anyone 18 and under.
The proposal also envisions adding four new hybrid-electric boats to the state’s aging ferry fleet, matching available federal dollars to move forward on a high-speed rail project between British Columbia and Oregon and spending nearly $2.5 billion removing barriers to fish passage.
At a time when the state’s infrastructure groans under the weight of age and as staffing shortages disrupt key pieces of the state’s transportation system, the need for more funding is a view shared widely in Olympia. But disagreements about where those dollars should come from and where they should end up gets at some of the ideological fault lines within the Capitol. Republicans said Tuesday they had not been included in negotiations with Democrats, calling the proposal “partisan.”
But Democrats stood strongly behind the funding measure at its unveiling Tuesday. “This package reflects what we heard and our focus on meeting every community’s needs,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma.
The proposal was introduced by the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees: Fey and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood. As promised early in this year’s short legislative session, the package does not rely on an increase in the state’s gas tax, as previous transportation funding has. But it would bring in $2 billion in new revenue by adding a new, 6-cent tax on fuel exported from Washington state, a proposal Liias acknowledged is sure to bring opposition from affected industries.
The new package also contains more than $2 billion in additional fees, including on license plates for cars and motorcycles.
The proposal leans heavily on revenue from the state’s new Climate Commitment Act, which was passed by the Legislature in 2021 and puts a price on carbon emissions. The state estimates it will raise roughly $5 billion for responding to climate change over the next 16 years.
The funding package would also take advantage of a rosy operating fund forecast by authorizing a one-time $2 billion transfer into the state’s transportation fund. Historically, the two have remained separate. The state also anticipates around $3.4 billion in new money from the federal infrastructure bill passed last year, as well as roughly $1 billion in new bonds.
In his first year as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Liias said this funding proposal fulfills the promises made by the state to complete major highway projects. Those include the Seattle portion of Highway 520, a widening of Highway 18, construction of bus lanes on Interstate 405, funding for Washington’s half of a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River and completion of Highway 167 in Pierce County. In total, the package allocates roughly $4 billion for new and ongoing highway projects, plus another $3 billion for maintenance.
At the same time, Liias, who’s widely viewed as more transit-focused than his predecessor as committee chair, Steve Hobbs, said this budget would represent a “pivot” toward a transportation future with a more diverse and accessible array of modes.
The package includes $3 billion for transit service, half of which would go to local governments in the form of grants while the other half would go toward transit-focused capital projects. It also includes $1.2 billion for “active transportation models” such as safer routes to schools, bike and pedestrian safety programs and bike programs for students. Aurora Avenue in Seattle, one of the state’s deadliest stretches of road, would see $50 million in safety improvements. Another $50 million would be set aside for communities affected by highway construction.
To make transit service free for everyone 18 and under would cost $36 million for the ferries and $12 million for Amtrak trains. The total cost for local transit agencies is not yet clear, but would be a requirement to qualify for newly available state grants, said Courtney James of Liias’ office.
The proposal includes $150 million for ultrahigh-speed rail through Cascadia, which would go toward matching as much as $700 million in federal dollars.
The overall focus of the proposal, Liias said, is on “building the transportation system of the future that is increasingly carbon free, that’s focused on moving people and goods, and thinks about how to embed multimodal planning and multimodal options,” he said, referring to transportation that includes a focus on transit, bicycles and pedestrian walkways.
If passed, this package would be the fourth major transportation funding measure in the last 20 years. The previous three depended on raising gas taxes, but Liias said he did not want to burden families at a difficult time. “That’s my commitment to working families,” he said. “We’re not going to ask you to pay more when you’re struggling.”
Previous measures were also struck along bipartisan lines, a reflection of the division of power at the time. But with Democrats in control of the Legislature, members of the Republican caucus say they feel cut out of the process.
Ranking member of the Senate Transportation committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said Tuesday he was “disappointed” Republicans were not included earlier in the negotiations. He said the Democrats’ proposal includes things he supports, namely the completion of major highway projects. But he’s frustrated with their decision to raise fees and introduce a new tax. King also questioned the investments in transit at a time when ridership remains depressed.
“They raised a whole lot of money with new taxes and fees and that’s very concerning,” he said. “Because there’s lots of money here” from the federal government and the operating fund.
Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, called the proposal “mind-boggling.” He said it spends too much on multimodal projects and not enough on maintenance, all while adding a new tax and raising fees.
“I would say that the priorities don’t line up with what we have been discussing over the last several years,” he said.
King acknowledged that the Democrats are likely to pass the package in much the same format as it is today and can do so without Republican votes.
“I think it’s one of those things that has been cooked,” he said. “They’ve reached an agreement. They don’t need our votes to pass it.”
Liias said he believes that once Republican members see the proposed projects, they will support the package. But he acknowledged that the effort so far has unfolded largely on one side of the aisle. He pointed to Republicans’ unified opposition to the Climate Commitment Act last year as evidence that the two sides were “philosophically misaligned.”
“Republicans said they fundamentally hate the central pillar of what we’re doing,” Liias said. “It makes it hard to negotiate from that. So we’ve done the best we can. Now we’re going to go to them and find common ground on other pieces going forward.”
The Democrats’ proposal was applauded by Gov. Jay Inslee, who urged its swift passage and said would “provide major benefits to communities all across our state.”
The proposal was well-received by advocates for a more multimodal system of transportation, including groups representing labor and business, alongside environmental and transit advocates.
“This is a paradigm-shifting package,” said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council. “We’re having a higher percentage of investments in transit and in people than we’ve ever had before.”
Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, called the proposal a “historical and transformative” step toward meeting the state’s climate goals and making transit more accessible.
The Legislature’s first hearing on the proposal is Thursday.