Politicians make plans to snag the 777X

Early in his first term, Gov. Jay Inslee faces a big test: Can he help convince the Boeing Co. to build the updated 777X jetliner in Washington?

All eyes will be on Olympia in coming weeks, even as leaders in Snohomish County say they, too, are responding to Boeing’s needs.

“I feel like we are in a good position here,” Inslee said in an interview last week. But “we have to bring our A game.”

Boeing’s board on Wednesday gave the OK for the company’s sales team to begin offering the latest version of the Everett-built 777 to customers. The next step will be for the board to approve the 777X’s formal program launch, which is expected later this year. That’s when Boeing could announce a competition of sorts for where the 777X will be built.

After the company board’s move Wednesday, Inslee said he’ll soon unveil a comprehensive aerospace strategy for Washington. The governor said he has been working on the plan with the Washington Aerospace Partnership, a coalition of labor, business and government representatives.

“The paramount goal of this effort is to win the 777X for Washington,” Inslee said.

In February, Inslee outlined state transportation and education initiatives aimed at appeasing Boeing. Many of Inslee’s efforts, though, are hostage to the budget, which has lawmakers returning to Olympia for a special session.

“We need the Legislature to act this year on both transportation and education,” said Inslee, who vowed to do what he can to push those measures through. “Next year is not good enough.”

Company lobbyists are among those pushing for an $8.4 billion proposal that would be largely paid for by a 10-cent increase in the gas tax and higher vehicle registration fees.

“I think it helps (Boeing) make a decision, definitely,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and chief architect of the package.

Doing nothing is a bad idea, said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, a vice chairman of the House roads panel.

“I think it puts us at risk” of losing the 777 competition, “but I don’t think it is a deal-breaker at this point,” he said.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson supports Inslee’s transportation initiatives but shares Liias’ sentiment. In particular, Stephanson is pushing for improvements to the U.S. 2 trestle, enhancements to three intersections between the Port of Everett and Boeing, as well as the addition of an interchange at the Boeing Freeway and Hardeson Road.

However, Boeing’s potential 777X expansion plans at Paine Field in Everett could go through without any of the new transportation initiatives, Stephanson said. The city has already conducted specific traffic studies with respect to the 777X.

“Even though those (proposed) projects are important, we’ve got the immediate need covered,” he said.

Stephanson and Inslee both favor education efforts like a plan to add an electrical engineering program at Washington State University’s Everett location. Other initiatives include expanding science, technology, engineering and math education grants and funding recently added engineering slots at the state universities.

Lawmakers also will consider how to fund a more direct tie to industry: the governor’s office of aerospace. The Senate budget eliminated those funds. The House, however, not only planned for the salary of the office’s director, Alex Pietsch, but also included an extra $200,000 for the office.

That money would be matched 2 to 1 by the Washington Aerospace Partnership, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization Pietsch helps direct. Neither Pietsch nor Inslee offered details about how the $200,000, which increases to $600,000 with the match, would be spent. The request for $200,000 is more of a placeholder to make sure the state can address needs that arise for the 777X effort, Pietsch said.

“It’s a very small investment on what would be a very big return,” Inslee said in an interview Wednesday.

Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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