On the road to dysfunction

It’s as painful as psychotherapy. The excruciating tug-of-war over state transportation is peeling away minor issues and stripping the question to bare bones: Are we willing to let partisan distrust paralyze important governmental functions?

Transportation negotiators met with editors and publishers in Olympia last week. Like estranged spouses at a family gathering, they smiled earnestly and traded bland compliments. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, professed mutual admiration. Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, made a point of thanking House Transportation chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, for granting his request for a cost analysis of public works projects. (Although, he claims, the findings weren’t quite acceptable.)

The only one not smiling was Clibborn herself, who made the severe pronouncement that King and others have erected ideological roadblocks to a successful transportation package.

This is never a simple process. The state’s broad, long-term transportation needs often are compromised by narrow interests. Rural areas push for highways, urban areas pull for things like mass transit, and short-term electoral politics shape gas-tax decisions.

There is additional friction this time. The Senate Majority Coalition, led by Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, but dominated by the GOP, wants state government to atone for its sins: unnecessarily slow work, inexcusably expensive work, and shockingly incompetent work (think about the $200 million in design errors for the 520 bridge pontoons).

Voters won’t support the cost of a statewide plan, King and Tom warn, unless so-called reforms are imposed on the Department of Transportation. For their part, Democrats agree efficiencies are desirable, although they’re probably too inclined to think the public will trust the system to mend itself.

Taxpayers shouldn’t believe the dispute is so clear cut. After all, which of the reforms looms largest? Atop King’s list is a demand that sales tax collected on transportation projects go into the transportation budget, not into the state’s general fund. In truth, this “reform” would not improve DOT efficiency or increase money available for construction in a meaningful way.

This demand is an effort to tie up the tax revenue so Democrats don’t have the option of spending it on other things such as — gasp! — education.

Like Rep. Clibborn, we are not smiling. The Majority Coalition’s strategy seems rooted in cynical partisanship. If Republicans believe the purported reforms can win public support, perhaps they should submit them directly to the voters. More urgently, all legislators on the transportation committee should buckle down now and come up with a transportation package that will benefit all parts of our state.

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