Westbound cars merge from Highway 204 and 20th Street SE onto the U.S. 2 trestle during the morning commute March 30, 2017 in Lake Stevens. Replacing the westbound trestle is a critical part of the legislature’s transportation packages. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Westbound cars merge from Highway 204 and 20th Street SE onto the U.S. 2 trestle during the morning commute March 30, 2017 in Lake Stevens. Replacing the westbound trestle is a critical part of the legislature’s transportation packages. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Editorial: Lawmakers must keep at transportation’s grand deal

The complex mix of bills can accomplish too much to surrender to opposition to taxes and costs.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If you’ve been keeping up with reporting from Jerry Cornfield, The Daily Herald’s legislative correspondent, you will have noticed the complexity of the moving — and possibly interchangeable — parts included in a grand bargain for the state’s transportation budget, including approval of a $17.8 billion transportation spending plan, the taxes and fees to pay for it and legislation to address carbon emissions for which the state’s modes of transportation are most responsible.

With eight days remaining before the April 26 conclusion of the regular session, lawmakers continue to spar over proposals, counter-proposals, conditions, amendments, objections, consequences and benefits.

That last one — benefits — is no small thing and goes beyond the transportation projects proposed; it also includes proposals that would represent significant steps toward beginning to limit the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change — in particular carbon dioxide — 44 percent of which are the products of the state’s transportation sector.

The nearly $18 billion in the main transportation spending package would fund projects and programs throughout the state, including a long-sought shared project with Oregon to replace I-5’s Columbia River crossing into Portland; a second replacement bridge over the Columbia at Hood River, Ore.; the construction of four new ferries; resumption of prior highway and other projects delayed by covid’s economic drag; replacement of salmon-blocking culverts mandated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision; and typical expenditures for support of the State Patrol, public transit and other programs.

Locally, the package includes long-sought projects including $1.8 billion to replace the aging westbound span of the U.S. 2 trestle between Lake Stevens and Everett, $90 million to widen a three-mile stretch of Highway 522 between Monroe and Maltby, $58.5 million to complete the Monroe bypass, $58.2 million for widening of Highway 9 north of Clearview and $15 million toward widening about three miles of Highway 524 between 24th Avenue W. and Bothell’s city limits.

Paying for the projects introduces the first complication, with a package of some 30 tax increases, fees and revenue transfers with opponents lined up against each specific proposal, including a nearly 10-cent increase for the state’s gas tax, a 50-cent fee for ride-hailing services and their food deliveries, a tax increase on auto parts sales, vehicle and driver’s license fee increases, a fee for commercial drone registration and loss of the tolling exemption for transit and school buses.

Also in the mix — representing a likely price increase if not a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel — are competing proposals to put a price on carbon emissions.

Senate Bill 5126 seeks to establish a cap-and-invest program, also called cap and trade. The state’s major polluters, such as oil refineries, would be required to buy credits for each ton of carbon dioxide they release. The number of credits issued each year would decline over time, resulting in higher prices for the credits and more revenue and encouraging reductions in emissions.

Senate Bill 5373 seeks a more straight-forward path, placing a price on each ton of carbon emissions, chiefly from refineries. It would start with a price of $25 a ton, rising annually by the inflation rate plus 5 percent. The revenue would be used to repay $16 billion in bonds that would fund environmental restoration work and economic development, particularly in lower-income communities.

A third proposal, House Bill 1091, would directly limit carbon emissions through a low-carbon fuel standard, similar to programs already in place in California, Oregon and British Columbia. The program would establish a trading system where deficits for carbon-intensive petroleum fuels could be offset by a range of less-polluting fuels such as ethanol, bio-diesel; hydrogen for fuel cells; and the promotion of electric vehicles and development of the roadside charging stations to power them.

HB 1091 has passed both House and Senate but — at the insistence of five Senate Democrats — has been tied to adoption of the transportation spending package, a condition to which the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, has objected as “bad precedent.”

Yet another condition from the five moderate Democrats requires the legislation to ensure it doesn’t “dramatically increase the cost of fuel … and disproportionately impact those who can least afford it.”

Lawmakers, of course, can’t set the price of a gallon of gas, but the cap-and-invest legislation suggests a solution through a provision to allocate funds from it to the state’s Working Families Tax Credit program, implementation for which was also adopted this year by the Legislature.

Got all of that? As we said, complex.

There’s a lot here that many will object to, not the least of which is another dime — OK, 9.8 cents — added to the current gas tax of 49.4 cents a gallon, which would vault Washington state over Pennsylvania — the current highest state gas tax at 57.6 cents.

But Americans seem to be of two minds when it comes to infrastructure spending: one half of the brain eager to see their state and nation build back better; the other half wanting that particular something for nothing.

When Americans were asked about their support for the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans, 62 percent said they thought the investments were a good idea, according to polling done for Vox. But only 32 percent of voters said they would support a higher federal gas tax to pay for those projects. It’s not hard to imagine a similar split had the same poll asked about support for policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions vs. the costs of those policies to consumers.

Lucky for the Biden administration, it’s proposing a corporate tax increase — or rather a claw-back of some of the 2017 Republican corporate tax cuts — a revenue source that had 70 percent approval in the recent Vox poll.

Beyond a proposed — and uncertain — state capital gains tax that would go toward the general fund, no such revenue source is available for the state’s transportation spending, leaving the bill for state residents to pay via the gas tax, tolling and fees.

Which is why the focus — for state lawmakers and for the state’s residents — has to remain on what can be accomplished by all those moving parts: marked improvements for how we get around; less time spent in traffic; the investment and support for the state’s businesses, jobs and the economy; real reductions in the greenhouse gas pollution that fouls the air and contributes to climate change and its immense and growing costs to our health, our environment and our well-being.

If all of that takes more time to negotiate than what remains in the session, state lawmakers need to keep at it until that grand bargain is struck.

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