Washington State’s congested transportation network had paused in 2020 when COVID-19 restricted driving by 15% and wiped out 60% of transit drivers, giving officials a year to look for solutions.
Now that a new year has come, state lawmakers will feel a renewed urgency to tackle the deadlock, underfunded roads and bridges, and whether to pass a massive mobility plan.
Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says he will be taking a break from the National Guard so he can make a third attempt to broker a billion-dollar Forward Washington plan. Without a nationwide package, Hobbs will lose another year to replace the jammed Westbound Highway 2 that connects his constituents with Everett.
Gov. Jay Inslee, burned by voter and lawmakers’ rejection of carbon prices, will try again to kickstart his climate change agenda by spending $ 318 million on ferry electrification and low-carbon fuel standards and $ 20 million on pedestrians , Bicycles and Schools proposes zone improvements and $ 3.25 million to plan future bullet trains.
“To meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals, we need to aggressively diversify our transportation infrastructure,” said Inslee. “Electrifying our vehicles, ships and buses is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon pollution.”
The state is far behind its target of reducing CO2 emissions by 25% by 2035.
On the minority side, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, supports minimal or no new taxes in 2021 while citizens still suffer from COVID-related business restrictions. Legislators should limit their ambitions to maintenance and already approved projects, he said.
Expect a tug-of-war over whether carbon taxes should be carried over to transit as opposed to simple gasoline taxes provided for roads in the 18th amendment to the state constitution.
While these visions compete, the drama in the virtual Capitol is compounded by less transparency as public testimonies and committee hearings go online, Barkis said.
Hobbs joked in a telephone interview, “I’d rather do my military duty because at least I know who my enemy is. Do I really want to go there?” [Olympia] and get the crap out of me? Everything you do is judged. “
Senator Curtis King, R-Yakima, predicts a difficult road to settlement as at least three or four versions are proposed. Legislators must reach a 60% bipartisan agreement to sell bonds to fund projects.
Senator Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, drafted a 12-year evergreen plan worth $ 14.3 billion that includes high carbon fees and a tax on luxury aircraft and yachts. It would fund the maintenance with $ 1.9 billion, which is way above other proposals, but avoids adding lanes – except that Hobbs’ favorite Highway 2 counts as “deferred maintenance”.
“In the Puget Sound region, traffic management needs to ensure that not only is content added to our system, but that traffic is moved to the next exit,” she said.
She called for “environmental justice” in neighborhoods like those around the Duwamish River, which are separated by historic highway projects. Airplanes, fossil fuel ships and trucks also pass through there during the epidemic. It will continue, she said, so cleaner fuels are a must.
Hobbs said he was rewriting the package he proposed in 2019 for $ 16.6 billion and 10 years.
The largest project, nominated for $ 3.175 billion on its original list, is the I-5 Columbia River Crossing. Oregon and Washington resumed planning last year after a 2014 political collapse. The states would replace the highway drawbridges built in 1917 and 1958.
Hobbs said he was inclined to add $ 75 million to repair the cracked high-rise bridge in West Seattle. He sees the nationwide value for port trade and regional travel. It also encourages Seattle lawmakers to endorse a statewide plan.
“This is a democracy. It’s about getting more votes,” Hobbs said.
That’s far more than the $ 19 million the Seattle Department of Transportation proposed in talks with other lawmakers.
“I really appreciate Senator Hobbs’s interest in the West Seattle Bridge,” said Seattle Mobility Director Heather Marx when she was briefed on the higher goal. Senator Joe Nguyen of D-West Seattle described the bridge funding as part of a “great bargain of proposals” being circulated.
Forward Washington’s second most expensive road project is Highway 2, with $ 1.5 billion on the original plan. Traffic has tripled since 1980, and a new trestle going west may add a lane for bus carpooling or be partially dependent on tolls.
Other important items include $ 1.7 billion for ferries, terminals and the electrification of ships. $ 1 billion for highways maintenance; a toll fund of $ 470 million to increase an I-405 bottleneck through Bothell; and a $ 300 million extension to Highway 3 in Gorst on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Senator Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah’s 57-vote win over progressive challenger Ingrid Anderson last fall brings more power to Forward Washington.
“I’m 100% of the opinion that relieving traffic jams should be the # 1 priority on a transportation bill,” Mullet told the Eastside Transportation Association.
His district has already been nominated for $ 285 million to widen Highway 18 along Tiger Mountain, where four lanes narrow to two. People have died in frontal wrecks.
But Mullett is now proposing another Eastside project – expanding the interchange where I-90 meets I-405 at Bellevue, particularly from Issaquah towards Lake Washington. It is common for 60 miles per hour of traffic to pass as you approach the intersection.
“They’re basically retreating as far as Bellevue College and trying to make that turn,” he said in an interview.
Legislators should focus transportation dollars on cities that welcome rapid business growth, he argues, namely Bellevue as opposed to Seattle.
Hobbs replied that he was ready to add an I-90 / I-405 project to Forward Washington.
He declined to publish a draft list until he can review details of certain projects with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The search for money
Earlier versions would cost 15 cents a gallon, either through direct gas taxes or the impact of carbon taxes passed on to consumers by refineries.
There are other options, such as a pay-per-mile fee, but it takes years to set up, said D-Mercer Island retired MP Judy Clibborn, who worked on a study group to review 10 to 13 concepts.
Mullet, who drives an electric Tesla, predicts the public and lawmakers may be hungry for a gas tax of 8-10 cents a gallon. He said a similarly high carbon fee is also needed to help the state fight global warming. Hobbs said he would support a carbon tax if at least half were put back into the transportation budget.
However, groups like the Pro-Transit Transportation Choices Coalition will look for money to help bus agencies cope with COVID-related sales tax and tariff losses, as well as equity programs to help communities exposed to pollution. They will need full transit access again soon, said coalition lobbyist Bryce Yadon.
“If we wait a week or a month too long, we will have a big impact on people’s ability to get to work or get a doctor’s appointment,” Yadon said.
One idea that is making the rounds is to push salmon stream restoration – worth $ 3.5 billion to replace damaged culverts – from Forward Washington into the general fund.
That way, the transportation budget would have more leeway to fund more bonds and projects.
That begs the question of whether lawmakers should pit fish against education, law enforcement, public health and other government services. If money or credit runs low, culverts can potentially be funded by an annual fee of $ 50 for each piece of land in the state, Mullet said.
A loss of toll traffic in 2020 brings with it another dilemma. While lower income won’t hurt the state’s creditworthiness, it could hamper efforts by suburban cities and lawmakers to build projects on I-405 and the associated corridors of Highway 167.
Now that thousands have exercised from home, it is unclear when the demand for travel could drop to days before COVID. Does Washington need more capacity?
Sen. King of Yakima said he was open to a large package – and is even writing a version himself. But he is reluctant to immediately raise fuel costs.
“How can you tax people who are just struggling to survive in 2020 more heavily? We have people who live on unemployment insurance and do whatever we can to scratch and feed their families,” he said.
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