Senate offers imperfect transpo plan

Republicans in control of the state Senate offered up a $15 billion transportation plan last week that phases in an 11.7-cent increase in the gas tax over three years. The 16-year plan has flaws. It threatens limits funds for transit, takes money from the state general fund, prevents at least one course of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and erodes wage protections.

But it does represent a welcome new effort after last year’s Senate failure to even get a vote on a needed transportation plan.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has proven earnest and dogged in his search for a funding solution despite reluctance in his own party to vote for any tax increases.

And unlike a year ago, King has garnered support from at least two Democrats, Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Sen. Marko Liias of Mukilteo.

King’s proposal pays to widen Interstate 5 at the traffic choke point along Joint Base Lewis McChord, and it completes State Route 167 into Tacoma. The first project is a headache for travelers between Olympia and Tacoma or Seattle; the latter is key to trade activity at the Port of Tacoma, and it generates jobs for the region.

It also provides $35 million for interchange improvements at Interstate 5, Marvin Road and SR 510 in Lacey and $66.8 million for the Yelm Loop project. Statewide, funds are earmarked to complete the west end of the 520 bridge over Lake Washington, finish the north Spokane freeway, and widen I-405.

On the down side, the proposal threatens a source of funds for rural transit, van pools, and walking programs – by linking that to whether Gov. Jay Inslee drops his proposal to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard by agency rule-making. Inslee’s fuel proposal, which may have unwanted impacts, needs full airing separately and should not be held hostage.

Inslee’s other proposals to put a price on carbon emissions and use some of that revenue for transportation still deserve more consideration. Polling by Elway Research has revealed public resistance to a gas tax increase but found and support for taxing carbon. Inslee’s plan raises revenue by enacting a pollution fee for major emitters such as power plants, refineries, fertilizer and pulp-and-paper plants, and the like.

In rejecting a previous House proposals that relied on the gas tax, the Republicans’ Majority Coalition Caucus created a litmus test for transportation plans. It insisted that any viable plan needed 30 votes – 60 percent of the Senate – in order to authorize bonds that typically finance major projects. This year, with some GOP members opposed to King’s plan, that looks like a tall order.

One element of the Senate’s plan that may die in the House is the continued GOP demand that sales-tax dollars collected from transportation projects be rerouted into highway projects starting in 2019. That money helps pay for K-12 schools, universities and agency operations, and the GOP has not yet shown a willingness to find replacement revenues.

But King’s proposal is the new game in town, and if he’s able to move a bill through his committee and through the full Senate, it will certainly merit negotiations with the House.

Inslee’s plan also deserves more serious consideration in the Senate.