State transportation budget raises fees, avoids ferry cuts

OLYMPIA — While lawmakers didn’t solve the state’s budget problem they did approve a handful of new and higher fees to avert cuts in ferry service and give cash-strapped transit districts a little financial assistance.

In the waning moments of the regular session Thursday, they passed a transportation spending plan that relies on those fees to maintain service on Washington State Ferries and prevent a shutdown of the Washington State Patrol’s auto theft unit.

While this budget doesn’t undertake any major new construction projects, it does contain $650,000 to continue preliminary design of a wider bridge on Highway 9 over the Snohomish River and an additional $1.8 million for permitting tasks tied to the possible relocation of the Mukilteo ferry terminal.

It “includes something for every part of the state,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the transportation panel, echoed the sentiment, calling it “a very good transportation budget” in his floor speech.

Most of the budget items highlighted by Haugen and King are paid for out of the pot of $57 million in fees to be collected through June 30.

There’s money to cover higher fuel costs for the ferries, study the future use of liquefied natural gas as a ferry fuel and construct a new 144-car vessel. There’s also $132,000 for a statewide Blue Alert system to notify the public about an offender suspected of injuring or killing a law enforcement officer. It will operate much like the Amber Alert system.

“This is a (budget) that everyone can take home and have something they can be proud of,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

Republicans would disagree. While many voted to approve the budget, nearly every Republican lawmaker voted against the fees that were contained in separate bills.

Washington residents will begin to encounter the new costs this fall.

For example, the price of an original driver’s license or renewal will rise from $25 to $45 in October and then rise again to $54 next July. Also in October, the cost of a driver’s exam will be bumped up from $20 to $35.

Car owners will pay a new $10 fee for their vehicle’s first set of license plates while motorcycle owners will shell out $4 for their first plates.

Starting next February, owners of electric vehicles will pay $100 at the time they renew their vehicle registration. It will apply to vehicles powered solely by electricity and designed to drive at a speed of more than 35 miles per hour.

Combined, the fees are expected to bring in about $57 million in this budget cycle, which ends June 30, 2013, and $185 million for the 2013-15 budget.

Cities, counties and cash-strapped transit districts will get a small share of the fee revenue.

But they must wait until the upcoming special session to see if state lawmakers will expand their ability to generate significant sums for repaving roads, filling potholes and operating buses.

Lawmakers failed to act on a bill to allow cities, counties and transportation benefit districts charge a vehicle license fee of up to $40 without a vote of the people, or a motor vehicle excise tax of up to 1 percent, so long as it is approved by popular vote.

The same legislation also would allow counties, with voter approval, to collect a local gas tax of 1 cent, 2 cents or 3 cents a gallon; today counties’ only option is to charge 3.75 cents per gallon.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Going into overtime

A special session to deal with a deficit in the state budget will begin at noon Monday.

By law, it can last up to 30 days.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she chose Monday to give lawmakers time to rest and recharge so they can “totally focus” when they return. She’d like a framework of an agreement reached in the first week.

“We need to go home and get away from each other,” she said. “Democrats need to get away from Democrats. Republicans need to get away from Republicans. House members need to get away from Senate members and they all need to get away from me.”

She hopes a weekend will help mend a rift between Republican and Democratic leaders that’s impeded resolving key issues with the budget.

“They all know they don’t have a choice,” she said. “The public’s confidence in them is going to be totally dependent on whenever they get that job done.”

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