Senate plan bodes well for transportation package

The OlympianNovember 20, 2013 


Traffic on northbound Interstate 5 comes to a near stop as drivers drop into the Nisqually Valley on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. A traffic accident at near Joint Base Lewis-McChord had traffic backed up for more than ten miles nearly all afternoon. (TONY OVERMAN/Staff photographer)

TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian

A bipartisan transportation revenue package now looks possible after the Republican-controlled Senate Majority Coalition released its proposal to complete unfinished projects and upgrade the state’s deteriorating roadways. The Republican plan closely resembles last spring’s state House plan that the Senate rejected.

State Republicans have been as tax adverse lately as their federal brethren, so when they talk about an 11.5 cent increase in the state’s gas taxes over three years to raise $12.3 billion, it’s a strong indication that a deal lays within the 2014 Legislature’s grasp.

The proposal has several benefits for the South Sound, including $350 million to fix the worsening Interstate 5 bottleneck around Joint Base Lewis-McChord. That’s an improvement on the House plan, which would have designated only $175 million.

House Democrats hoped to attract matching federal highway funds for the JBLM improvements, but the Senate plan assumes no help from Washington, D.C. It’s a wise assumption because Congress seems hopelessly deadlocked, and if the feds do come through, so much the better.

The Senate plan would also improve the state Route 512 interchange — another congestion point on the I-5 corridor — and finish the state Route 510 Yelm Loop.

In all, the Senate package would directly distribute more than $20 million to Thurston County jurisdictions, with the county getting the lion’s share at nearly $10 million.

The Senate plan also differs from the House proposal in spending more on road repair and maintenance.

The state has fallen woefully behind in maintaining and improving its transportation infrastructure. The collapse of a section of bridge over the Skagit River last summer drove that point home.

We’re not alone in that regard. In almost every other state, lawmakers have cut repair budgets and put off necessary work as the recession squeezed down state revenues.

There will be other differences to overcome. Democrats might want sales tax revenue from road projects to continue going to the general fund where it can be used for education and social services. The Republican-led coalition plan puts that money into a specific transportation-only fund.

We have serious concerns over reports that the Senate plan sweeps money from an environmental cleanup fund. More detail is needed on that.

Washington needs a comprehensive transportation package now. It could help keep production of the Boeing 777X airplane in the Northwest, saving 56,000 jobs and retaining an estimated $17 billion in aerospace tax revenue over the next 16 years.

If the Senate leadership can promise Republican support for a tax package, lawmakers should not find the remaining issues too difficult to resolve in either a late-2013 special session or early in the 2014 regular session.

The time is ripe. We urge both parties to seize this opportunity, and show Congress how Washingtonians can work together for the common good.

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