Bring highway compromise to special session

The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 8, 2013 

Motorists slog their way north on I-5 near downtown Olympia late afternoon on Memorial Day as the weather,holiday traffic and an earlier accident further up near Hawks Prairie made for a very slow ride home.(STEVE BLOOM/staff photographer)

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian.

Washington’s lawmakers have two months to show that they’re serious about highways.

Gov. Jay Inslee has raised the possibility of a November special session to enact a statewide transportation bill. Two months are plenty of time to reach agreement on legislation that – in principle – almost everyone claims to support.

A $10 billion package of critical projects – including the completion of state Route 167 – cleared the House in June, but died in the Senate in the closing days of the regular session.

That original package will need some tweaking. Republicans in particular say they couldn’t vote for it as written. They are pushing for reforms that would lower costs and speed up construction. Several of them – such as exempting construction expenses from the state sales tax – make sense.

One proposal is more amputation than reform.

Republicans have been demanding that the Columbia River Crossing be dropped from the bill. This massive project would replace the crowded old spans that now carry Interstate 5 over the river from Vancouver to Portland.

Washington’s share of the new bridges would be $450 million. Critics – some of whom oppose the light rail it would carry – say that’s $450 million too much.

Carving out Clark County’s chief benefit from the bill would be an injustice. An editorial in The Columbian, Vancouver, sums up the unfairness:

“That would mean Clark County residents would be helping to pay for the rest of Washington’s major projects without receiving any consideration for their most pressing transportation need.”

It’s a persuasive complaint. But if the Crossing is so toxic that it will drag down all of the other highway improvements with it, Vancouver won’t be getting it whether it’s in the package or not.

Another mega-project, the Puget Sound Gateway, can’t wait. The $1.8 billion Gateway would extend SR 167 from Puyallup to Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma; it would also extend state Route 509 from Sea-Tac Airport to I-5.

These routes will help control congestion on I-5. More important, they will make it much easier to move goods through the area.

To expand, Washington industries need that freight capacity. The ports of Tacoma and Seattle need it to survive. They’ll get edged out by other West Coast ports if exports and imports can’t be trucked more quickly through the Puget Sound megalopolis.

Success in a special session would require that legislative leaders come to Olympia with a deal already in hand. This is a test of commitment. The urgency of these projects more than justifies a brief special session uncluttered by other issues and arguments.

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