The Legislature must pass an operating budget before it calls it quits for the year. That’s a constitutional necessity. But it must also pass a transportation package. That’s an economic necessity.
With the special session winding down, the prospects of the $10 billion highway-and-transit proposal remain precarious. Lawmakers can’t let it fail. The consequences of its passage — or its rejection — are literally incalculable.
Aside from a festering dispute over a new bridge between Vancouver and Portland, the projects in the package enjoy broad support.
The most important of them, the Puget Sound Gateway, would break open freight chokepoints by extending state Route 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma, and by extending state Route 509 from the SeaTac area south to Interstate 5.
If those chokepoints stay in place, they could ultimately turn the ports of Tacoma and Seattle into maritime backwaters as Pacific Rim shippers and manufacturers shift their cargoes to competing routes free of chronic congestion.
Other regions have big stakes in this measure:
• It would earmark $175 million to rebuild I-5 interchanges near Joint Base Lewis-McChord to ease traffic jams that paralyze the freeway on a regular basis.
• It would widen and add lanes to Interstate 405 to relieve congestion in that corridor.
• It would extend highway and rail corridors in Spokane, expanding that area’s freight-shipping capacity. It would also widen Snoqualmie Pass to improve its safety and ability to handle large trucks.
Freight mobility isn’t a particularly sexy issue, but the ability to efficiently move goods — apples, jet components, electronics, wheat — is vital to Washington economic future. All of these projects would help move people efficiently as well.
Improvements of this magnitude don’t come cheap. The investment will require additional taxes, including a gas tax that would eventually ratchet up to 10.5 cents a gallon.
Some lawmakers claim they want the job-generating projects even as they try to evade the tax vote needed to make the projects happen.
They’re quick with excuses. They’d vote yes if only the state Department of Transportation were overhauled first. They’d vote yes if only a particular project were configured a different way. They’d vote yes if only there weren’t light rail on the Columbia River.
If only everything were perfect first.
But this is a package deal that requires an up-or-down vote. Queasy lawmakers who understand what’s at stake should take a deep breath, ignore loud but shortsighted people, then vote their conscience and the interests of their state. Ten, 20 and 30 years from now, they will look back and feel proud.