Members of the state Senate Transportation Committee, including chairman Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, (right), listen during a Feb. 4, hearing at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., regarding proposed legislation regarding I-976. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Members of the state Senate Transportation Committee, including chairman Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, (right), listen during a Feb. 4, hearing at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., regarding proposed legislation regarding I-976. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Editorial: Path toward clean fuels and transportation funding

House Democrats have offered a deal to win Senate support for the clean fuels bill and road projects.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s not exactly “unstoppable force meets immovable object,” but for the last year attempts to adopt a lower-carbon fuel standard — rules that would work to cut carbon emissions from the state’s transportation sector, our largest producer of greenhouse gases — have come up against efforts to pass a major package of transportation projects.

But a recent proposal from more than 30 House Democrats might offer a path to achieve both.

Last year and this year, the state House has passed House Bill 1110, which would adopt a clean fuel standard similar to what is now in place in California, Oregon and British Columbia. It would require a reduction in greenhouse gases from gas and diesel fuels, 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2028 and 20 percent by 2035. The program would establish a trading system where deficits for carbon-intensive fossile fuels could be offset by a range of less carbon-intensive fuels such as ethanol, bio-diesel, even used cooking oil that can be blended into fuels; hydrogen for fuel cells; and the promotion of electric vehicles and development of the roadside charging infrastructure to power them.

Last year, however, the legislation failed to advance to the Senate floor. This year it’s moved as far as the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology, where its scheduled for an executive hearing today that could move it along to the Senate Transportation Committee, where Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is chairman.

Hobbs opposed the bill last year, blocking its path to the floor out of concern for its potential for increasing the cost of gas and diesel in the state and what that might mean for his proposal for a transportation spending package. Hobbs’ Forward Washington package would raise $16 billion over ten years for several statewide projects, including a new I-5 crossing over the Columbia River. Closer to home, Hobbs outlined more than $2 billion in Snohomish County projects, including widening and improvements to the westbound lanes of the U.S. 2 trestle between Everett and Lake Stevens and additional lanes for I-405 between Highway 522 and Highway 527.

The fuel standard bill is supported by Gov. Jay Inslee, who in his State of the State address likened inaction on it and other climate-related bills as “just as deadly as climate denial.”

Hobbs, a moderate Democrat, isn’t a climate denier, but he is protective of a transportation package that — in addition to improving highways in his district and throughout the state — would also levy a carbon fee or a carbon cap-and-trade system as a source of funding. It also includes money to replace culverts beneath highways and roads that block salmon streams, work long sought by environmental groups and now mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Herald Editorial Board has endorsed Hobbs’ transportation package as an example of the leadership on transportation we said we hoped to see from him before he won re-election in 2018. And we’ve endorsed HB 1110 as essential to reduce carbon emissions that are endangering health from air pollutants and driving climate change that already has brought billions of dollars in economic losses to the state and the nation.

Adoption of one shouldn’t — and doesn’t — have to come at the expense of the other. Both already face enough opposition on their own.

The clean-fuels standard is opposed by the oil industry and the Association of Washington Business, who have attacked it by claiming it will increase the cost of gasoline. The experience of motorists in the two states south of us has shown only moderate increases; 2.2 cents a gallon in Oregon and about 9 cents in California. That’s not nothing, but it’s far below the fear-mongering estimates of spikes of 50 cents or more a gallon that opponents have claimed.

At the same time, Hobbs’ transportation package has its own critics for the funding sources it proposes, including a 6-cent increase to the gas tax; more tolling, including for an improved U.S. 2 trestle; and the carbon pricing proposals.

One path toward adoption of both has been offered by more than 30 House Democrats —including several Snohomish County representatives — in a letter to Hobbs and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House transportation committee.

Noting the challenges in adopting a new transportation package — and the added complication of filling in a more-than-$453 million revenue pothole left by passage of I-976 — the proposal offers a compromise in seeking passage of both Forward Washington and the clean fuel standard. The group suggests that if HB 1110 is adopted, its enforcement could be made contingent on passage of a transportation revenue package during the 2021 legislative session that would raise at least $2 billion a year, providing some cover and the pledged support from those legislators.

Both aren’t likely to win passage in the same legislative session, say those signing the letter, but both have to get done.

“As urgent as our transportation infrastructure needs are, the climate crisis is also urgent. We owe it to current and future generations of Washingtonians to begin on a trajectory to decarbonize the transportation sector before it is too late,” the letter reads.

There’s buy-in for the proposal among some if not all of the state’s environmental groups.

“This could be a good way forward,” said Adam Maxwell, with Audubon Washington, part of the Climate Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, recognizing the need to work with Hobbs and the environmental benefits his transportation package offers. The Climate Alliance, itself, has not taken a position on the Democratic proposal.

With two urgent needs, a two-step approach — one that puts off implementation of the first step until the second step is certain — can deliver on both.

Clarification: This editorial has been updated to clarify that while some groups affiliated with the Climate Alliance are supportive of the proposal to delay implementation of a clean-fuels standard, the alliance has not taken a position regarding it.

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