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Governor's plan to pay for roads, ferries finds little support in Legislature

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
OLYMPIA -- The wheels are coming off Gov. Chris Gregoire's $3.6 billion transportation plan, and there doesn't appear to be anything she can do to prevent it.
State senators are stripping out a proposed fee on barrels of oil refined in the state that the governor counted on to generate roughly two-thirds of the dollars in the 10-year plan.
They're also dumping a $5 fee per studded tire -- the smallest component of the proposal -- despite studies showing use of the tires cause millions of dollars in damage to state roads every year.
Instead, the Senate is gearing up for a vote as early as today on a handful of new and higher fees that would bring in a fraction of the amount sought by Gregoire in January.
"We didn't have the support for her bill. We are doing what's possible," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who is shepherding the revamped bill through the process.
Political resistance is nearly as strong in the House. Gone is the studded-tire fee. And while the controversial fee of $1.50 per barrel of oil is in legislation passed by the House Transportation Committee, it is imposed on fewer types of refined petroleum products, thus netting significantly less revenue.
And the fee's future is seriously in doubt given the Senate's stance.
"We know it may move no further in the House," said Jim Justin, the governor's legislative director.
That leaves Gregoire few options for coming up with dollars needed for filling potholes, repairing highways and preserving state ferry service.
"It's not about what am I am going to do. It's about what are they going to do," Gregoire said Friday. "We do not have the necessary resources to maintain and operate what is absolutely, fundamentally necessary for the future of our state economically."
Transportation funding has become an increasingly thorny issue in Olympia. Gas tax revenues, the bread-and-butter source of money for the state highway and ferry systems, are on a slow decline as people drive less and use more fuel-efficient vehicles.
In the last couple years, the governor and lawmakers have searched without success for agreement on a different stream of money to pay for preservation of the system and new projects such as a proposed bridge across the Columbia River linking Oregon and Washington.
Washington State Ferries is particularly vulnerable as its day-to-day operations are subsidized with money that could be spent on roads. Unless there's a sizable infusion of dollars, less popular sailings of state ferries on the chopping block, Gregoire said.
"There's been some frustration when I talk about the ferry system and say that there is going to be runs that will be cut and (lawmakers) wish I wouldn't talk about it any more," she said. "I will forever be honest with the people of the state of Washington. We have an infrastructure problem in this state."
A month ago, in her State of the State address, Gregoire put forth the 10-year, $3.6 billion plan with the linchpin being the controversial barrel fee that opponents immediately blasted as a tax.
All the money went into maintaining roads and bridges and sustaining the existing level of service for Washington State Ferries.
She projected the fee would bring in $2.75 billion. Also in the package was a new $100 annual fee on electric vehicles, the studded tire fee plus a $15 hike in car registration tabs.
What's emerging in the Senate would bring in about $800 million over 10 years while the House offering with the barrel fee is about double that amount.
Both chambers are likely to endorse the electric vehicle fee. If approved, starting next February, owners would pay $100 at the time they renew their vehicle registration.
The House and Senate also are expected to agree on bumping up the price of such things as renewal of driver's licenses and automobile license plates. And, for the first time, motorcyclists would pay for their plates.
Lawmakers rejected the charge on studded tires, which the Department of Transportation estimates cause up to $18 million a year in damage to roads. They said the $500,000 a year gained from the fee isn't enough money given the ardent opposition from vehicle owners around the state.
"We are doing what we can do, not what we want to do," said Haugen, noting she think lawmakers will have to consider going to the ballot next with a revenue package.
Gregoire, in talking to reporters Friday, restated her frustration with another year of inaction by the Legislature.
"You cannot look at transportation in the state and say we do not have a problem," she said. "You cannot kick the can down the road. You cannot put a band-aid on this problem. If they didn't like my proposal, they need to come up with a different proposal."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;
Story tags » FerriesTaxesGovernorLegislatureRoad Repair

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