Looking east toward the U.S. 2 trestle, cars begin to backup on on a March afternoon in 2018. The aging westbound span needs to be replaced. A new state transportation plan — including taxes to fund it — will get a hearing Thursday in Olympia. (Andy Bronson / Herald file photo)

Looking east toward the U.S. 2 trestle, cars begin to backup on on a March afternoon in 2018. The aging westbound span needs to be replaced. A new state transportation plan — including taxes to fund it — will get a hearing Thursday in Olympia. (Andy Bronson / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Keep debate going on ‘Son of Connecting Washington’

A proposal by Sen. Steve Hobbs for $16.3 billion in transportation work deserves more discussion.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has put forth an intriguing plan that would fund more than $16 billion in transportation projects across the state, with particular attention paid to work in his home county and his district, including desperately needed improvements to the U.S. 2 trestle, Highway 9 and Highway 522.

It’s the leadership we hoped to see from Hobbs when we endorsed his bid for election to a fourth term in the Legislature last year, noting the position he held as chairman of the Senate transportation committee and his ability to set the agenda there.

The plan is far-reaching and bold.

Far-reaching because it would be Part II to the Legislature’s Connecting Washington package, passed in 2015, that is now building $16 billion in projects across the state, largely on a 11.9-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase. First floated by the Republican-controlled Senate at the time, the package gave Washington residents the second-highest state gas tax in the nation at 49.4 cents a gallon.

Bold, because there’s something for everyone to complain about; it is upfront about how it would fund $16.3 billion in transportation projects, proposing a 6-cent increase in the gas tax, a carbon tax, tolls and a broad list of other fees. (Even at 55.4 cents a gallon, Washington would still be second to Pennsylvania’s tax of 58.2 cents a gallon.)

We now hope Hobbs will be as bold in his commitment to his own plan, past a possible “one-and-done” meeting Thursday before the transportation committee.

As reported Tuesday by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, Hobbs is putting a lot of weight on whether “there is an appetite to do anything.” If public reaction during Thursday’s two-hour hearing is generally positive, Hobbs said he’s prepared to draft a bill out of the plan and hold a formal hearing in his committee. But if the plan is met with significant public push-back, he’s likely to shelve it for the time being.

It shouldn’t be abandoned that quickily.

The plan’s $16.3 billion would fund a lot of good work, more than $2 billion of it here in Snohomish County.

Among the local projects, “Son of Connecting Washington” would provide:

$1.36 billion to build a new three-lane westbound U.S. trestle and rebuild the interchange for Highway 204 and 20th Street SE (Cavalero Corner);

$160 million to widen Highway 522 to four lanes between Maltby and the Snohomish River and build a new interchange for Highway 522 at Paradise Lake Road;

$470 million to widen I-405 between Highway 527 and Highway 522;

$58.2 million to widen Highway 9 between 176th Street SE and Highway 96; and

$56 million for the first phase of a U.S. 2 bypass for Monroe.

Statewide, the project list includes $3.1 billion to replace salmon-blocking culverts; $1.67 billion for construction of new electric ferries and retrofit of existing ferries with electric batteries to replace diesel engines; $450 million for the state’s share of a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River into Oregon; and $1.5 billion for general infrastructure preservation and maintenance.

The plan relies on a broad base of funding sources, targeting most of them to relevant projects.

The gas tax increase is largely earmarked for highway projects. Tolls are proposed for a share of the U.S. 2 trestle project. Transportation impact fees on commercial, industrial and residential development would fund local highway, street and road improvements. And a 1 percent sales tax on the sale of new bicycles would fund bike and pedestrian projects and the Safe Routes to Schools grant program.

Among the more controversial proposals is a $15-a-ton carbon tax, which would largely fund projects with an environmental focus, including the culvert work that has been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court and recommended as part of the governor’s task force on saving the state’s Southern Resident orcas; the electric-powered ferries; and stormwater projects needed to reduce pollution flowing into the Salish Sea, also recommendations in the orca task force report.

Yes, less than three months ago, voters rejected Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a similar $15-a-ton carbon fee (although it would have increased over time). But polling in the days after the election showed strong support — 64 percent of voters — for state efforts to reduce carbon pollution.

A gas-tax increase. A carbon tax. New fees. What’s not to grumble about? There’s even something for environmentalists to dislike in a proposal that would permanently bar consideration of a low-carbon fuel standard, such as the one proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

But if Thursday’s two hours of testimony are used mostly as target practice for the anti-tax and fee crowd, that should not discourage further discussion and consideration of a proposal that could fund projects that were left out of the Connecting Washington package four years ago but are vital to our daily comings and goings, the economy, the environment and our well-being.

Comment

The Senate Transportation Committee will accept public comment on Sen. Steve Hobbs’ draft transportation funding plan at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, in Senate Hearing Room 1, John Cherberg Building, Olympia.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified Initiative 1631.

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