The Republican-dominated state Senate Majority Coalition, which balked at passing a huge transportation funding package earlier this year, is now floating a $12.3 billion transportation package, with an expectation that Gov. Jay Inslee may call another special Legislative session next week.
That alone is big news, because the deal includes a 11.5 cent gas tax increase theoretically endorsed by a fiscally conservative caucus. The package is heavy on maintenance, but would also pay for 51 projects, with billion-dollar chunks going to completion of the State Route 520 floating bridge ($1.3 billion), widening of Interstate 405 from Lynnwood to Renton ($1.25 billion) and the so-called Puget Sound Gateway expansion of State Route 509-167 ($1.69 billion). Here’s the draft project list and balance sheet. It also gives King and Snohomish counties authority to fund transit services by putting local-option taxes on the ballot.
Senate and House leaders are negotiating, but Senate Transportation Committee Co-chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, and House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said they agree on a broad outline, and on many of the projects. Clibborn’s version, passed by the House in June, is here.
Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor could call a special session Nov. 21 and 22, when lawmakers are in Olympia to pick committee chairs for the 2014 session, but would only do so if there’s enough votes to pass the package. A clearer path toward a special session may emerge Friday, when caucuses meet in Olympia.
What’s odd about the MCC proposal is the muted response by King County Democrats. They hammered the coalition for failing to act last June, largely because the package would have given King County “local option” taxes to stave off devastating cuts (including cancelling 74 routes).
Now, the King County Council is willing to put a $100 car tab fee on the ballot to fund Metro, with or without the Legislature’s help. This is seen as weakening the Majority Coalition’s political hand, and Democrats are now essentially negotiating for a better deal, including funding for public transit operations (the MCC package has none, although it does include grant money) and more bike-pedestrian funds.
“We’re not going to be held hostage like last session,” said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. He also said the 520 floating bridge funding was about $100 million short.
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who notes the MCC package includes Eastern Washington projects in the districts of legislators unlikely to support any gas tax increase. “There’s no question in my mind that Seattle and King County have reached a tipping point when they expect Seattle and King County votes to carry a substantial gas tax increase, and in return receive a wink and a smile and authority to vote on more taxes” to fund Metro transit.
“If we drew up a package, it wouldn’t be what the MCC drew up,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for transit.
The gas tax doesn’t come with an automatic referendum clause, although Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, said he “fully expects” the package would be put to a vote if passed.
Political negotiations are fine, but transportation has historically been a bipartisan effort. The Majority Coalition Caucus leadership deserves credit for drawing up a credible plan which takes care of King County (finishing 520, several local options, etc.) and responds to the labor-business coalition pushing for transportation investment.
It’s time for some statesmanship in Olympia.