County road projects in limbo at Legislature
An off-ramp could be built from I-5 over the railroad tracks in Marysville to the new Ebey Slough Bridge, reducing congestion on busy arterials at rail crossings.
The aging bridge over the Snohomish River on Highway 9 could be replaced.
These are a few of the hundreds of millions of dollars in Snohomish County road improvements that weren't funded by the Legislature earlier this year. If lawmakers don't meet this fall, they'll be left on the table again.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday called for lawmakers to schedule a November special session to decide on a new transportation package. The governor had scarcely floated the suggestion before some said it was road kill.
But if no agreement is reached this fall, funding for the projects will have to wait until the 2014 Legislative session or beyond.
That's bad news for the state's economic future, said Troy McClelland, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County.
The county is home to 170 aerospace suppliers. It has the second most manufacturing jobs, more than 63,000, of any county in the state.
Aerospace suppliers told McClelland's group that an interchange on Highway 526 at Hardeson Road is critical to improving access to southwest Everett's industrial district.
The county's employment centers are not only economically significant to the local economy, but to all of Washington, McClelland said.
Senate Republicans say they won't vote for any tax increases unless reforms are made in how transportation is funded and projects are handled.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is a vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee. He said that while compromise on those reforms is possible, "I'm not as hopeful as I once was," he said.
The Hardeson Road interchange was on a list of 15 Snohomish County projects totaling more than $382 million recommended for approval this summer. The list included a $46 million interchange at 116th Street NE in Marysville and I-5 near the Seattle Premium Outlet mall at Tulalip.
"I strongly support the project list we have for Snohomish County," Hobbs said. "I could tell you a lot of the senators and house members are pretty unified on this."
Those projects, along with the rest of the $10 billion transportation package approved by the House of Representatives, never came up for a vote in the Senate.
That package would have required raising the gas tax by 10½ cents per gallon -- 6 cents this year and 4½ cents next year. Republican lawmakers weren't willing to entertain that notion without forcing some changes in how the state goes about spending transportation dollars.
One of the projects included in the proposed House bill was a new $433 million I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. The Senate and House disagreed on the need for that project, though it wasn't the major holdup, said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the Senate transportation panel's other vice-chairman. "The House and the governor wouldn't agree to our reforms in the previous session," Benton said. "We just finished two unnecessary months of special session. It's a ridiculous waste of taxpayers' money."
A special session is "highly unlikely," he said.
About $400 million in gas-tax money is siphoned into the general fund every year, according to Benton. The 18th amendment of the state Constitution dedicates the gas tax to "highway purposes."
The Senate Republicans want all gas tax money rededicated to transportation, and they want the state to implement recommendations by the Auditor's Office last January on how to cut the cost of building ferries, Benton said.
Also, one of the biggest costs in construction projects is environmental permitting, which needs to be streamlined, he said.
"If there's going to be additional or new revenue for transportation, there must first be reforms," Benton said. "We are not going to fund a broken system."
Benton said even if Olympia agrees on a package, Senate Republicans don't believe it should become law unless it's put before voters.
"We have to have plan that is acceptable to the citizens we represent," he said.
Toward that end, the Senate GOP has organized a series of seven public hearings around the state this month and next, including Oct. 7 in Everett.
McClelland stopped short of saying the alliance would support a gas tax increase for the projects, but did say more revenue is needed.
"We support reform to make sure we're getting the most for our buck and we support the revenue to take care of our businesses," he said.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, serves on the House transportation committee. He said the House's package received public vetting in hearings during the session.
He was a little more optimistic that a November session could happen, but it would have to entail agreement beforehand or it would do no good, he said.
Inslee's call, he said, "helps put positive pressure on both sides to come to an agreement. This is an important issue and we should keep talking and try and find consensus," Liias said.
"We don't have time to waste from year to year, we really need to get focused on getting it done."
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.
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