What’s most important about the state Senate’s new transportation package are not its contents but the fact that it exists. The contents aren’t bad, either.
Washington’s roads haven’t caught up with the 21st century; many haven’t caught up with the 1990s.
The replacement bridge for state Route 520 across Lake Washington is under construction – but it connects only partially to Interstate 5. I-405 is crippled by chokepoints between Renton and Belleview.
Snoqualmie Pass needs widening. In Pierce County, Joint Base Lewis-McChord has become the epicenter of colossal jams up and down I-5. More capacity and better interchanges are needed.
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Above all, SR 167 must be extended from Puyallup – where it stops abruptly – to I-5 and the Port of Tacoma. That six-mile gap is corking the port and blocking the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.
The new Senate plan emerging from the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus follows the broad outlines of a plan that passed the Democratic House but failed in the Senate last June.
The Senate package would fund the projects above and many smaller ones. It would fund SR 167 and the JBLM corridor at higher levels than the House plan.
The money’s always the sticking point.
Total cost: $12.3 billion. About a third of that would come from a gas tax increase of 11.5 cents. Various fees and savings, including a passenger vehicle weight fee, would account for the rest.
The budding Republican support for those taxes and fees is extremely encouraging.
Some GOP lawmakers are terrified of taking a tax vote. Some subscribe to the mindless Grover Norquist mantra: No taxes, no way, never, for nothing.
The problem is that highway projects are very, very expensive. After population and traffic pass a certain point, a functional transportation system becomes impossible without major improvements – and new taxes to pay for them.
Lawmakers can easily play both sides of this issue. They can claim to support specific transportation projects and unspecific funding. When it comes to an actual vote, though, they pick at some detail as a reason to oppose it. Too much transit. Union wages too high. Tolls. Whatever.
But it appears that the Majority Coalition leadership is coming up with a genuine transportation plan with real dollars attached. If it can also come up with Republican votes for the plan, the state GOP may start looking like a problem-solving governing party again.