OLYMPIA — Wheels are starting to turn on an effort to drive a multibillion-dollar transportation measure onto the ballot in 2012.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is pulling together a statewide panel of advisers for the thorny task of crafting something that will generate enough money, fix enough proble
ms and receive enough votes to pass.
This group — to be made up of business owners, labor leaders, environmentalists and lawmakers — will try to concoct the right mix of projects residents want and the taxes, fees, tolls and other means of raising revenue they’ll accept to do them.
“There will be many components to this,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who, as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, will be on the panel. “Everybody is going to want something. We have to make people understand that not everything is going to happen right off the bat.”
To help the panel find a palatable blend, the state will soon poll residents on what they view as pressing transportation needs and the best ways to deal with them. Bids are due July 11 for a $165,000 contract to survey up to 5,000 people. Results are due by late fall.
What the advisory group draws up will be sent to the Legislature for fine-tuning, then placed on the November 2012 ballot.
“There’s definitely going to be some heavy dialogue in the upcoming legislative session,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, a member of the House Transportation Committee. “The big issue is how far-reaching will it be and what’s the source of funding behind it.”
Right now, no one knows the answers to those questions.
In 2003, the Legislature hiked the gas tax by a nickel to pay for $3.9 billion worth of work over 10 years, 158 projects in all. That package also increased vehicle weight fees and the sales tax on new car sales.
Two years later, the Legislature passed — and voters later upheld — a 9.5-cent increase in the gas tax, the linchpin of a $7 billion, 16-year plan covering 274 projects. A portion of the money also came from higher weight fees on cars and light trucks and a new levy on motor homes.
This time, there will certainly be jockeying for funds for Washington State Ferries, light rail, mega projects and community bus service. Money to take care of existing highways and pave new ones will be debated.
To pay for all that, proposals for again hiking the gas tax and a variety of fees, as well as tolling more roads and creating new charges, such as one for electric vehicles, will be on the table.
“It could be all of the above,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee of the buffet of choices.
Even if this high-powered panel finds that political sweet spot, its effort could still be done in by the economy. If it’s not humming along better next year, voters may simply be too cranky to pass anything.
“The $64 question will be, ‘Has the economy improved enough?’ ” said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “If it has, there’s a chance. If it doesn’t, I don’t think voters will be in any mood to tax themselves any more.”
Knowing this prompts the question of whether this journey is worth it if it may end badly. Transportation leaders in the House and Senate from both political parties said the needs are too great not to try.
“I don’t know if there is ever a good time,” Clibborn said. “I don’t know if there will ever be a better time. We’re just going to go forward and see because it’s time to do something.”
Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, who will represent his caucus on the panel, said going directly to voters will enhance chances of passage. The key is making clear the nexus between where the money comes from and where it goes, he said.
“This is not something the Legislature should do without some support from the public,” he said. “I think people recognize the value of having a good highway system, rail system … the whole shebang we have in Washington to move people and products around the state.”
Haugen knows transportation taxes can make for a toxic conversation among lawmakers, more so next year when most are up for re-election.
She got a good taste of the challenge on the last day of the recent special session.
House Democrats used their majority to pass a bill increasing a few car and driver licensing fees to pay for a handful of transportation programs. In the Senate, Republicans questioned the use of the money and opposed it, and Haugen could not get her party leadership to bring it up for a vote.
She said she expects 2012 will see the Legislature put something on the ballot, followed by a massive campaign to pass it.
“We did it before,” she said, referring to 2005. “We can do it again.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org