Senate joins table on transportation

The Washington state Senate proved this week that it has the muscle to pass a transportation funding plan in 2015. That’s major progress after two years of wheel spinning and doubts about whether the Republican majority could deliver a statewide solution.

Importantly, the Senate vote finally opens the door to a broader discussion with the House on a plan that – we hope – takes steps to incorporate concerns about climate change. The state’s transportation sector is responsible for almost 45 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions, which exceed targets set in law.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a cap-and-trade plan that would charge polluters such as refineries for the carbon-emissions in their fuels, and he would use some of the pollution-permit fees to pay for highway maintenance.

The Democratic governor also is considering executive action to adopt a standard that could boost use of biofuels, but the Senate plan has a poison-pill provision that reduces transit funding if Inslee moves ahead.

Democrats in the House don’t like the poison pill provision, but they have not showed yet how they would attack the carbon emissions problem linked to global warming. A House transportation-tax plan approved in 2013 – but never given a vote by the Senate – relied on gas taxes and other vehicle fees and did not take on the climate challenge.

Monday’s Senate vote was 27 to 22 to endorse the three-year phase-in of an 11.7 cent increase in the state gas tax.

A total of seven Senate Democratic Caucus members voted for the Senate plan along with 20 from the Republicans’ Majority Coalition Caucus. Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, whose qualms include an environmental-review streamlining provision in the package, voted against it. But Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who votes with Republicans, dropped his campaign-trail resistance to a tax hike and voted in favor.

Sheldon said the package offers enough reforms – such as a shift of sales taxes on construction projects back into transportation; a statement that congestion relief and freight mobility are state transportation goals; and streamlined permitting – to overcome his earlier insistence that any increase go to voters for approval.

The Senate plan calls for the first nickel tax increase to hit July 1. When the third step increase is in place in mid-2017 the total state gas-tax rate would be 49.2 cents per gallon. Washington’s rate, No. 7 nationally today, would move up to No. 2 – behind Pennsylvania’s 50.5 cents.

The proposal raises an estimated $15 billion over 16 years, providing financing for major projects statewide. Key projects in South Sound: completion of State Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma; $450 million to improve Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis McChord; money for revamping the I-5 interchange at Lacey’s Marvin Road; $64 million to complete the Belfair Bypass in Mason County; a loop highway project around Yelm.

Unfortunately, the package of bills approved by the Senate shifts tax receipts from highway projects out of the general fund and puts them back into the separate transportation budget – most of that occurring after 2019. This approach makes sense only if there were a corresponding interest in the Senate to raise other new revenues to replenish the general fund, which pays for schools and other vital state services.

All in all, the Senate action is progress, and it sets the table for serious negotiation with the House and the Governor’s Office, and, we hope, an agreement to fund transportation and reduce carbon pollution in our state.