Transit funding stays parked in special session

OLYMPIA — With the special session in its final hours, it’s clear cities, counties and bus agencies won’t be getting a lifeline for new transportation funding they wanted from state lawmakers.

A bill allowing them to pursue an array of money-raising options, including a gas tax and motor vehicle excise tax, is parked in the state Senate and not expected to budge before the extra session ends Tuesday.

“There are just not the votes,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee would be the one to steer it through the process. “There was just general heartburn among members. It was just too heavy a lift.”

Haugen authored Senate Bill 6852 that squeaked through the Senate on a 25-24 vote Feb. 13. Democrats in the House then amended and approved it on a mostly party-line vote of 53-43.

But Haugen and other senators didn’t like the House version and the differences didn’t get resolved in the final days of the regular session or the extra session.

“Obviously it’s disheartening,” said Martin Munguia, spokesman for Community Transit. “If this bill passed out of the Legislature this year, it doesn’t guarantee us any money but it at least keeps the hope alive that we can make the case to the public.”

Without it, he said, the transit district must look to further reduce spending, cut service and raise fares to deal with budget shortfalls. Since 2010, the agency slashed service by 37 percent including elimination of Sunday service.

The bill proposed to add expanded options for generating revenue.

One piece would have let counties impose a local gas tax of one, two or three cents a gallon. Counties have such authority now but state law sets the amount at 10 percent of the current state fuel tax which would be 3.75 cents. Politically, that’s too high an amount for county leaders to pursue.

Another element would have increased the amount of car tab fees transportation benefit districts could collect from $20 to $40. The two chambers differed on whether the hike should need voter approval.

A major sticking point — and the piece of most importance to Community Transit and the Snohomish County Council — centered on the motor vehicle excise tax.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, proposed allowing counties to charge residents an excise tax of 1 percent on the value of their vehicles with the approval of voters. And if a county chose not to do this, a transit agency would be allowed to seek voter approval of a half-percent MVET of those living within the boundaries of their district.

For Community Transit, it could mean as much as $15 million a year, which is roughly equivalent to what’s been cut, Munguia said.

Haugen didn’t like this idea. She preferred only transportation benefit districts be able to impose an MVET. Her opposition didn’t soften and by March 23 — the 12th day of the month long special session — Haugen forecast its fate.

“In my mind, I don’t see how we can move it,” she said.

While that dampened hopes of Snohomish County Council members and Community Transit officials, they continued pressing hard to get the bill back into play.

Snohomish County Councilman Dave Gossett, who serves on the Community Transit Board, said he figured he could be ready to ask voters to approve an MVET in 2013 had that option been made available.

But it didn’t

“I think where it leaves us is exactly where we are,” he said.

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

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