Editorial: Road work ahead, thanks to revised budget

Projects halted by I-976 can now resume, but other funding and environmental issues remain for next year.

By The Herald Editorial Board

State lawmakers — and specifically Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee — now hit the road home from Olympia having at least restarted a long list of transportation projects and programs that came to a halt following the passage in November of Initiative 976, which sought to scale back vehicle license tabs to $30.

I-976 itself remains in legal limbo. While state courts address a challenge by King County and Seattle, the state has continued to collect those license fees, but has held them, rather than using them to fund road and other transportation projects. Operating on the assumption the courts will uphold the initiative, most transportation projects that didn’t have a shovel blade in the ground were halted.

Passage of a revised transportation budget will now allow much of that work to resume, including projects in Snohomish County: among them $145.6 million for additional lanes on Highway 522 between the Snohomish River bridge and Monroe; $142 million to widen Highway 9 to four lanes between Marsh Road and Second Street; $605 million to add capacity to I-405 between Highway 522 and I-5, along with other improvements; and improvements and preservation work for state ferries.

Lawmakers, boosting last year’s transportation budget to $10.3 billion from $9.8 billion, were able to fill the $453 million hole in transportation funding created by I-976 — money that amounts to about a quarter of state transportation revenue — for the balance of the transportation budget through mid-2021.

But hopes to do more than backfill that anticipated loss will go unfulfilled.

“It’s a budget that works for this year, but we have a lot of work to do in the upcoming years,” said Hobbs, in a News Tribune story Thursday. “My hope is that we can come together … next year to pass something that funds our transportation, fixes our culverts and gets Washington moving forward again.”

On the “maybe next year” list for Hobbs is his 10-year Forward Washington transportation package that outlines $16 billion to $17 billion for several statewide projects, including a new I-5 crossing over the Columbia River. Hobbs also has 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.

His plan would 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. Currently, the price tag for that work totals about $3.8 billion. The revised transportation budget increased funding for those projects, but by just a fraction of what’s needed, a boost to $275 million, up from $175 million.

Few got what they had hoped for on transportation issues. Republicans made a wish that House and Senate — both controlled by Democrats — would beat the courts to the punch and adopt I-976’s fee cut. Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, offered a bill to lower the vehicle valuation schedule used to assess a motor vehicle excise tax for Sound Transit’s ST3 project. Neither went far.

Nor did environmental and health advocates get the clean fuels standard they have sought for two years. House Bill 1110 passed the House for a second time but again didn’t advance to the Senate floor. The standard 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 fossil fuels could be offset by a range of less carbon-intensive fuels such as ethanol, bio-diesel and the promotion of electric vehicles and other measures.

This year the legislation made it as far as a hearing before Hobbs’ committee, but didn’t get a committee vote. Hobbs, concerned with its effect on passage of his transportation package, has opposed the fuel standard legislation.

We’ll repeat that Hobbs’ transportation package and the clean fuels standard don’t have to come at the expense of the other. Each, in fact, is necessary.

Hobbs’ package recognizes the infrastructure and environmental investments that are needed in the state to support our economy by timely getting workers between home and jobs while moving the products — including those in Snohomish County — that are produced in the state.

And, with every passing year, we are that much further from addressing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions produced by the state’s transportation sector, the single-largest source in this state. Beyond their contribution to climate change, those emissions also are responsible for adverse health effects to children, seniors and others who suffer with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, especially those living along roads and highways.

Lawmakers did well to find the funding to restart transportation projects this session, following the budget mess left by I-976. But the road ahead gets no easier.

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