Olympia must produce transportation package

If Washington’s lawmakers don’t get the message about transportation, their heads are as solid as the 42 quarried-in-Index granite steps on the north side of the state Legislative Building.

The message this year is simple: Act. The Legislature must enact a package to deal with the state’s transportation problems.

Unfortunately, that’s the same message legislators heard last year. By the time the governor gave up on getting action out of the 2001 Legislature, the embarrassment covered the Senate, where bipartisan agreement had been achieved, as well as the hopelessly deadlocked House of Representatives.

On the surface, the prospects for putting some dynamism into the 2002 Legislature aren’t all that different. It’s mostly the same people there. And the state’s politicians are still confused about how to deal with the growing phenomenon of initiatives and, particularly, initiative guru Tim Eyman.

There are some encouraging signs, however. The special elections in two Snohomish County districts gave control of the House to one party, the Democrats. Both houses of the Legislature have turned quickly toward enacting transportation efficiency reforms. And, proving that they are smarter than your average slab of granite, legislators and the governor are actually talking to Eyman instead of just waiting for him to whack them with another sledgehammer.

That’s a first step toward resolving whether or not to put any transportation tax hikes directly to voters. And legislators are hearing other thoughts, as they should. Boeing has delivered the reasonable argument that legislators ought to have the courage to enact a transportation package themselves. Being in the habit of paying people for results, Boeing probably expects legislators to do something, other than posturing, for their pay.

Still, it is important to remember the larger reality behind the discussion of whether to submit a transportation package to voters. Either directly or through signature gathering, any new transportation package will end up before voters at some point. So it had better be good enough to win public acceptance.

There have been suggestions within both parties that the Legislature set itself an early deadline for finishing work on transportation. Early action would have the benefit of allowing the Legislature to concentrate on budget issues for the rest of the session. But if haste pardons or increases partisanship, the Legislature will poison the well of public support further. That appeared to be happening as House Republicans came away fuming from a vote on the efficiency bill, which, while setting some worthwhile goals, guarantees Department of Transportation worker jobs and calls for financial incentive plans to keep some workers. Before the bill reaches the governor’s desk, it needs help. Otherwise, the message of bonus and job-protection language could be to tell voters: What recession? What crisis? It’s business as usual.

Any indecision this year will be costly to the state on every front, including its ability to keep businesses like Boeing and attract others. More directly, as Congressman Rick Larsen points out, the state will cut the legs out from under Sen. Patty Murray and others in arguing for federal assistance to Washington’s transportation projects.

That’s an easy enough argument to understand. But there is nothing terribly challenging about the issue. Legislators of both parties must resolve their differences and act to address the state’s most critical problem.

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