County leaders like Senate’s roads plan, but it has a bumpy road ahead

OLYMPIA — The multibillion-dollar transportation package proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee in December disappointed many civic and business leaders in Snohomish County.

The governor drew up a plan to spend $12 billion in 12 years on transportation that identified only two projects in the county for funding.

County leaders had the opposite response to an alternative put forth in the Republican-controlled state Senate on Feb. 12, heaping praise on the proposal, which would raise the gas tax and car-license fees to finance $15 billion in new statewide transportation spending through 2031.

Under the Democratic governor’s plan, Snohomish County was to receive a mere $82.8 million in project funding.

The GOP-endorsed plan would send $570 million the county’s way.

“While we have needs that exceed this amount, we are grateful,” County Executive John Lovick, a Democrat, said Wednesday at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on the new package.

The mayors of Everett, Marysville, Edmonds and Lake Stevens, and the president of Economic Alliance Snohomish County, also showed up to express gratitude.

“You have made a significant down payment on the key projects for our region,” said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “That is noticed and appreciated.”

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said he’s ready to help pass it.

“We’re ready to take this out to our community and explain the value of this and gain their support,” he said.

The spending

The $15.1 billion package is the result of several months of negotiations led by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate transportation panel, and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the ranking Democrat.

It would spend $8.2 billion on roughly 100 projects, including very big ones, as well as $1.2 billion for the preservation and maintenance of existing roads and $750 million for mass transit. There’s also money to build another 144-car ferry, the fourth in recent years.

As now drafted, the Senate package provides $570 million for 17 projects in Snohomish County including:

  • $145 million for building a new bridge on Highway 9 over the Snohomish River.
  • $70.8 million for a new I-5 interchange at the south end of Marysville.
  • $68.9 million for improvements to the intersection of Highways 9 and 204.
  • $36 million to rebuild the interchange of I-5 and 116th Street NE at Tulalip.
  • $17 million for safety projects on U.S. 2 between Snohomish and Skykomish.
  • $10 million for expanding bus rapid transit offered by Community Transit and Everett Transit.
  • $1.25 million for development of a new railroad crossing to reach the Edmonds waterfront.

There also is money for two projects that the governor, too, had in his proposal: $36 million to add a northbound lane on I-5 from Marine View Drive to Highway 528, and $47.2 million for a new off-ramp on Highway 526 at Hardeson Road near the Boeing Co. complex.

The Senate package covers the costs of relocating the ferry terminal in Mukilteo and makes up for shortfalls in the operating budget of Washington State Ferries.

There is a provision enabling Community Transit to seek voter approval of a sales tax increase for additional service.

And Sound Transit would be allowed to ask voters in 2016 to fund light-rail extensions to Everett and Tacoma by raising property taxes, sales taxes or motor- vehicle-excise taxes. However, the Senate plan does not allow Sound Transit to seek as large an increase in property and vehicle excise taxes as the agency desires.

The revenue

To pay for this plan, senators want to raise the gas tax by 11.7 cents rather than impose a new carbon charge on the state’s largest emitters of carbon emissions, as the governor proposed.

The gas tax would increase by a nickel on July 1, 4.2 cents on July 1, 2016, and 2.5 cents a year later. If approved, it would boost the state’s gas tax from 37.5 cents per gallon today to 49.2 cents in mid-2017.

Money also would be generated by increasing vehicle registration fees by $15 to $35 a year, depending on the weight of a car or truck, and by bumping up the cost of certain driver’s licenses. A new $5 charge on the sale of each studded tire is proposed, as well.

The last big source of revenue for transportation is tied to a controversial reform dealing with the sales tax that is paid on transportation projects. Those dollars now go into the state general fund and are used to run state government and pay for schools.

Republicans want to change the law so the money is spent on transportation projects. They say this would generate $965 million over 16 years. Inslee and some Democrats are willing to divert sales tax paid on new projects, but not every undertaking, as Republicans want.

That isn’t the only proposed reform that threatens to derail the state’s first transportation package since 2005.

Republican senators are pressing seven other measures affecting transportation design, permitting and construction and new ferries.

Among the those proposals are ones that would set a lower prevailing wage in some areas of the state and reduce use of union apprentices on projects. There’s also a requirement for an outsider to manage ferry-building contracts and for diverting money from a state toxic clean-up fund to the removal of fish-migration barriers.

Possibly the most contentious of all the Senate bill’s provisions is the one that Democrats are calling the “poison pill.”

Under the bill, if the governor “adopts, orders or otherwise implements” the low carbon fuel standard he wants, the $750 million earmarked for mass transit would be immediately redirected to road projects.

Inslee and his advisers have chosen their words carefully in criticizing this tenet, which they view as an infringement on the governor’s executive powers.

Charles Knutson, Inslee’s transportation adviser, reminded the Senate panel Wednesday of the governor’s concerns with “some of the strings attached to the bill.”

“The cleaner the bill, the easier it will be to negotiate” a final agreement, he said.

It’s not clear when such negotiations might commence.

Senate Republican leaders hope to pass the package and send it to the House within two weeks.

But House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, reiterated Thursday that the package won’t be dealt with until after the House figures out how to comply with a state Supreme Court order to fully fund public schools. Finding revenue for schools is a higher priority than increasing the gas tax, he said.

“I need to invest, at a minimum, $1.3 billion in education this session, and yet all I hear is silence” from Republicans “on solutions to address that,” Sullivan said. “I’m not sensing that same type of seriousness on the Republican side.”

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

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