Sen. Hobbs gets a key role in state transportation policy

The Lake Stevens Democrat will chair the Senate Transportation Committee.

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens

OLYMPIA — A Lake Stevens lawmaker is getting a bigger role in deciding what happens with tolling on I-405, Sound Transit car tab relief and funding replacement of the U.S. 2 trestle.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, will assume leadership Tuesday of the Senate Transportation Committee, a result of his party regaining the majority when it picked up a seat in this month’s elections.

“I’m humbled by this opportunity and excited to continue my work on behalf of Snohomish County and the entire state,” Hobbs said in a statement issued at the time of his appointment. Hobbs, who is in his third term representing the 44th Legislative District, has been the panel’s ranking Democrat since 2014.

It’s a powerful position. As chairman, he’ll decide what bills the committee will consider and vote on in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.

He’ll also be working with his Democratic counterpart in the House to craft a supplemental transportation budget that could steer a few additional dollars to road and transit projects in Snohomish County and elsewhere in Washington.

In a recent interview, Hobbs said he expected expanding the state ferry fleet and regulating autonomous vehicles to be discussed while tolling, car tabs and the next steps in improving travel across the trestle to be acted on.

And the fate of tolling on the 15-mile stretch between Lynnwood and Bellevue will be a dominant topic.

“It’s the most controversial issue,” he said. “We have to deal with it.”

Lawmakers launched tolling on the interstate in September 2015 as a two-year experiment. They said it could become permanent if the lanes pay for themselves and drivers average at least 45 mph for 90 percent of the time in the peak commute periods.

Otherwise, under state law the “express toll lanes project must be terminated as soon as practicable.”

It’s been two years and state transportation officials have told lawmakers the toll lanes are meeting the first benchmark but not the second. The problem is on southbound I-405 in the morning commute.

“When looking at individual segments, the southbound single-lane section is the only section of the corridor to report under the target of 45 mph or faster 90 percent of peak periods,” according to a new Department of Transportation report. “This is pulling down the overall average.”

State transportation officials plan to propose changes intended to meet the mark. Meanwhile, a Minnesota consultant hired by lawmakers is wrapping up an independent review of the toll lanes and will suggest ways for improving their operation. A draft of that study is due in December.

Future decisions are “all dependent on the studies,” Hobbs said. “We’ll see what the study says and see what the recommendations are and go from there. Obviously it will be somewhat contentious.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who also represents the 44th Legislative District, said Hobbs’ ascension to chairmanship is “an opportunity to do some good bipartisan work” for their constituents.

But Harmsworth, a member of the House Transportation Committee, isn’t always on the same page as Hobbs when it comes to transportation policy and projects.

Tolling on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue is one example.

Harmsworth wants toll lanes axed and the interstate restored to having one carpool lane and the rest general purpose lanes.

“I’m in favor of stopping the tolling. They’re not meeting the performance goals,” he said. “We’re in active dialogue on a lot of these issues. Steve is very open to talking about these matters.”

Issues swirling around Sound Transit are another matter lawmakers will likely act on.

Lawmakers could not decide earlier this year how to calm the uproar among vehicle owners incited by a surge in the cost of car tabs in the Sound Transit district. Tabs got a lot more expensive because of a voter-approved increase in the tax rate in 2016 to help pay for an expansion of light rail and bus rapid transit service in the heart of Puget Sound.

There was a Republican proposal to slash the tax rate. Hobbs opposed it out of concern it would leave Sound Transit unable to raise the amount of money needed to extend light rail service to Everett as promised in the expansion plan approved by voters.

He said he wants to move legislation crafted by Democrats and passed by the House earlier this year. That bill, which did not get a vote in the Senate, would require Sound Transit to provide rebates to vehicle owners and stop using an outdated method of valuing vehicles which contributed to the price surge.

While Harmsworth did vote for that bill, he said he still prefers the Senate Republicans’ approach because it provides “real relief” to vehicle owners.

And he said he will renew his push for a bill requiring members of the Sound Transit board of directors be directly elected. The board is now made up of elected officials from Snohomish, King and Pierce counties who are appointed to oversee the transit agency operations.

“They have no accountability. This will provide accountability,” Harmsworth said.

Hobbs isn’t a fan.

“I don’t see where adding a layer of elected officials to an organization necessarily makes it better,” he said. “I want to move on and pass the car tab rebate bill.”

A priority for Hobbs in 2018 is pushing ahead on replacing the U.S. 2 trestle and dealing with the congestion convergence zone on the east end where U.S. 2, Highway 204 and 20th Street SE come together.

Hobbs secured $350,000 in the current state transportation budget for an analysis of various ways to pay for the future improvements which will cost between $750 million and $1 billion. That report is due to lawmakers Jan. 8.

Certain financing options must be examined in the review. One is the potential for a public-private partnership. Another is establishing a transportation benefit district comprised of cities, such as Lake Stevens, plus Snohomish County and maybe even the Port of Everett, which has expressed a willingness to help fund any project.

Tolling is also considered with state officials suggesting rates as much as $6.30 in one direction may be needed.

Harmsworth posted on Facebook a single page of a recent presentation showing the chart of potential tolling rates. He declined to provide a copy of the full presentation.

He opposes tolling but endorses the concept of a regional transportation district as long as it is led by an elected board of directors. That board could raise taxes, with voter approval, to pay for the project. Harmsworth did not say if the study makes such a suggestion.

Hobbs declined to comment on the content of the draft report until shared with lawmakers.

“My goal for this year is to figure out what is the best financing tool,” Hobbs said. “The next step is what kind of structure it will be. This could be a billion-dollar project. We don’t want to screw it up.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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