Politics & Government

Senate passes $15 billion transportation package

Seven of eight state senators who represent Pierce County voted Monday for an incremental gas tax increase of 11.7 cents per gallon over the next three years to pay for highway projects.

Pierce County lawmakers have been among the biggest cheerleaders for a transportation package, with the understanding that it would finish a long-sought connection for international trade by extending state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma.

“This is something we’ve been waiting 30 years for,” Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said after the Senate advanced the proposal.

In 2013, Puyallup Rep. Hans Zeiger was the only minority Republican to vote with House Democrats for a gas-tax package. Now two years later, Tacoma Sens. Steve Conway and Jeannie Darneille were among seven minority Senate Democrats joining the GOP majority to back a $15 billion revenue package Monday.

Republican senators voting yes included Dammeier, Jan Angel of Port Orchard, Randi Becker of Eatonville, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Steve O’Ban of Tacoma. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, voted no.

The Senate passed the revenue bill on a 27-22 vote. Senators also passed a spending bill that designates the money to specific projects, including a four-lane extension of SR 167 and a widening of Interstate 5 at a 4-mile choke point along Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“Even though there are issues with it that we might all have, this is a process,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. “In the end, I think we will have something that is very good for the state of Washington.”

Under the Senate’s 16-year plan, the gas tax would increase in three stages: a 5-cent increase would take effect this summer, a 4.2-cent increase would follow next year, and then a final 2.5-cent increase would take effect the following year.

Sen. Brian Dansel, a Republican from Republic, said that nearly 12 cents a gallon may not seem like a lot, but “it adds up quite a bit for folks who have to drive greater distances to fill their rigs up more often.”

The Senate proposal includes more than $8 billion for road projects that also include the North-South Freeway in Spokane and I-90 on Snoqualmie Pass, and puts money toward transit and local rail projects, as well as bike paths and pedestrian walkways. It also would allow Sound Transit to ask voters to fund potential expansions of its rail line.

The plan does not incorporate elements of Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-based proposal, which would have charged polluters under a cap-and-trade program to pay for transportation projects.

Part of the plan addresses another idea Inslee is considering, a low carbon fuel standard that would require cleaner fuels over time. If that standard is ultimately adopted, under the Senate plan, all nonbondable revenues — such as fee-based money going toward transit and bike paths — would instead be moved into the main transportation account, a tie that several Democrats decried, even some who ultimately voted for the bill.

“I really would strongly prefer to be able to vote on the revenue and the projects and not have that other policy debate brought into this bill,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat from Seattle who voted in favor of the package.

On Friday, the Senate passed eight bills tied to the package, ranging from environmental permitting to adding “congestion relief and improved freight mobility” to existing state goals.

One of the biggest bills that was a source of contention that passed last week was one that would exempt all state highway projects from the state sales tax and would redirect sales tax money from nonhighway transportation projects away from the state general fund

In a written statement emailed after the Senate vote, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said of the overall package that “the bad greatly outweighs the good.”

Sullivan has said that lawmakers must address a court-ordered requirement to put additional money toward the state’s education system, and questioned diverting sales tax dollars to the transportation budget.

“It moves us in the wrong direction and away from meeting our requirement of amply funding our schools,” he wrote.

Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte and staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.