Major state transportation package not an easy sell

While state Senate and House budget writers work toward a 2013-2015 biennium operating budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has asked legislators to reconsider a comprehensive transportation package during this special session. At this week’s transportation rally on the Capitol steps, Inslee and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck tried to spur the state House and Senate into serious negotiations.

Heck is helping the governor convince the Legislature that this is the year to make a major investment in transportation projects. Our new 10th District congressman has been pushing completion of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma and to finally connect state Route 509 with Interstate 5.

The arguments are convincing. Heck says four out of 10 state jobs depend on trade. Keeping those jobs and growing them depends on improving the movement of import and export goods to and from Sea-Tac airport, the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma.

The argument continues that relieving general highway congestion supports economic development, which means more family-wage jobs. On that point, business and labor groups — along with farm, environment and transit interests — have set aside traditional differences and lined up in support of pushing a big transportation package to voters this year.

With several Republicans joining Monday’s rally, and with business groups nodding “yes,” it seems as if state lawmakers should find agreement easily.

But nothing is that simple, least of all a multibillion spend on something so complex and critical as the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Critics have pointed out that the model for the transportation package — the roughly $8.8 billion House proposal — does little to fix our state’s deteriorating roadways and bridges. Only 10 percent of the House funding would go toward maintaining and preserving the state’s crumbling highways. And of that small amount, the current version of the House plan directs DOT to prioritize stormwater runoff, rather than repairing roads and bridges.

A former state Department of Transportation secretary, Doug MacDonald, says it is a myth that transportation improvements to the ports will benefit Washington – the nation’s most trade-dependent state. To support his theory, MacDonald says Boeing accounts for half of the trade exports through Everett and Renton airfields, soybeans are second and shipped here via rail and 30 percent of imports come from Canada by means other than the ports.

MacDonald believes the bulk of any big transportation package should go to improving the I-5 corridor pavement and bridges from Oregon to Vancouver, B.C. He adds that any “12-year transportation program that doesn’t include a clear commitment to the Columbia River Crossing raises the question of whether any program without it is worth the political lift.”

So, there are differences of opinion about transportation priorities and how the money should be spent, which could prove too difficult to resolve under the deadline pressure of this special session.

The state has fallen woefully behind in maintaining and improving its transportation infrastructure. We’re not alone. In almost every other state, lawmakers cut repair budgets and put off necessary work as the recession squeezed down state revenues.

Washington needs a comprehensive transportation package, but only if its spending priorities meet our most pressing needs. The last big package passed in 2005, so if we get it wrong this time, it could be another decade until another opportunity comes around.

We’re skeptical that state legislators, who haven’t agreed on much this session, can pull together the right package in the short time they have left.