$15 billion transportation plan funded by gas tax, car tab fee increases

OLYMPIA - After 22 months of negotiations, four senators - two Republicans and two Democrats - have unveiled a $15 billion transportation package.

An 11.7 cents-per-gallon gas tax increase is at its revenue core.

“It’s been a thorough and tough negotiation, but we did it with an honest appreciation for each other’s needs,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King (R-Yakima).

Starting yesterday and expected to wrap up today (Wednesday), the Senate Transportation Committee hears testimony on the 11 bills that make up the package.

King and Sens. Joe Fain (R-Auburn), Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) and Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) announced the details of the package during a press event on last Thursday.

The proposal would raise Washington’s 35.7 cents-per-gallon gas tax by five cents in July of this year, 4.2 cents in July 2016 and another 2.5 cents in July 2017.

Not all of the projected $15 billion would come from the gas-tax increase. Yearly car-tab fees would be raised by $15 in the program’s first year and then by an additional $8 in 2022. The classified skill examination fee for obtaining a commercial driver’s license would increase from $100 to $250.

The 16-year program would dedicate $8 billion to highway and road-maintenance projects with a primary focus on what the Yakima lawmaker called Washington’s areas of economic significance. The package would fund widening projects on I-405 east of Seattle, I-90 through the Snoqualmie Pass corridor and I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma, as well as a new north-south I-395 corridor in Spokane.

The plan includes $1.2 billion for completing the west side of the new Highway 520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, funding that otherwise would have been gathered through a toll on the I-90 floating bridge. The proposal also includes a measure that would allow Puget Sound residents to vote on $11 billion in tax increases - ranging from sales to property taxes - to fund light-rail extensions.

Other areas of the state - specifically legislative districts 1, 10, 20 and 40 in the Puget Sound area and Lewis County - would see no improvements. The Olympic Peninsula would see only minor improvements on a highway stretch near Elma in Grays Harbor County.

The package includes some funding for rural transit, van pools, safety programs, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.

But there’s a catch: if any carbon-fuel standards or greenhouse gas reduction requirements are implemented by Gov. Jay Inslee, that money would be withdrawn and reallocated to the state’s roads and highways.

King explained by saying, “It helps by having them not implement a carbon-fuel standard.”

Hobbs quickly interjected; “One little issue that we’re going to have to work out.”

Setting a cap on statewide greenhouse gas emissions and establishing limits on the carbon-content of Washington fuels are two of Inslee’s signature issues. Republicans have opposed both ideas, citing fears that corporate costs would be passed on to consumers. Costs for maintaining California’s emissions cap have led to a 10 cents-per-gallon increase in gas prices since the program began.

“We must make progress on funding transportation and reducing carbon emissions this session,” Inslee said in a press release following the package’s unveiling last Thursday.

“We need to see how much support the bill has in the Senate, and then we can all work on the next phase of negotiations,” the governor added.

The Senate transportation package sponsors said that because the four of them were able to reach across party lines to come up with the proposals, they are confident that they can muster the votes needed to get some version of it passed. But the carbon-reduction provision isn’t the only part of the package that has Democrats worried.

“In addition to that, funding is removed from a critical environmental cleanup account that is essential to maintaining a healthy environment,” Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) said in a joint statement with Sens. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) and Cyrus Habib (D-Kirkland).

“As it is currently constructed, I will not be able to support this plan,” said Ranker.

The proposal also includes a provision to move approximately $350 million from the state’s general fund to the transportation fund. The legislature is under court order to significantly increase education funding and some Democrats worry that taking money out of the general fund will make it difficult to meet that obligation. Republicans have opposed tax increases to fund education.

“We need to get to a transportation package that helps Washington’s families, environment and economy while not taking much needed funds from the operating budget that could be going to other priorities like education,” Jayapal said in the joint statement.


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