Could it be? Progress on transportation

Last week’s announcement of a transportation package funded by an 11.7 cent increase in the gas tax is a promising development.

  1. Now is a good time to fund needed improvements through a gas tax. Even with an 11.7 cent increase, gas would still cost significantly less per gallon than at this time last year.
  2. Transportation investments will help boost the economy. Washington will see economic gains from moving people and goods more quickly and efficiently (though of course you should read all studies with a skeptical eye, even studies we like).
  3. The maintenance component of the package is critical. It is much more costly to restore worn-down roadways than to maintain them smartly.
  4. A transportation package is necessary and the time to pass it is when conservatives control at least one house of the legislature, as they do now, and can drive the reforms that WSDOT needs to improve its performance.

It was surprising to some, but Democrats and Republicans came together to announce the proposal. Republican senators Curtis King (Senate transportation committee chair) and Joe Fain were joined by Democrats Steve Hobbs, a moderate, and Marko Liias, a…not moderate. The senators involved have been negotiating for months to get to this point.

The four were candid that they did not agree on all outstanding issues, but expressed confidence that any remaining points of contention can be negotiated to find an acceptable compromise.

The proposal has many positives:

  • Funds projects via the gas tax, not an untested, unprotected cap-and-tax system. Gas taxes are constitutionally required to be used for highway purposes and can’t be siphoned away for other things.
  • Finishes projects that need to be completed, including the North Spokane Corridor and the west end of the 520 bridge.
  • Completes SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma and improves SR 509. Improved freight mobility is critical for our economy, and those two projects will benefit the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Several sticking points remain, including:

  • Republicans want to end the practice of charging sales tax on transportation projects. Currently, sales tax is paid by highway project contractors, who of course factor those costs into their bids. The effect is a diversion of gas tax dollars into the general fund. Democrats are more resistant to ending this practice.
  • Democrats want every labor job on highway projects to pay prevailing wage, but Republicans want some work exempt from prevailing wage laws.
  • Low-carbon fuel standard “poison pill” – this provision is an attempt to prevent the Inslee administration from instituting a low-carbon fuel standard by executive order. Gov. Inslee is making moves toward instituting such a standard, which would raise gas prices, and has refused to rule out signing an executive order to put one in place. This provision would take away funding for multi-modal and transit projects if a low-carbon fuel standard is ordered.

No transportation proposal is perfect, but on the whole this package makes needed investment and drives reforms the public wants to see. With the continuing travails of “Bertha” and the Seattle tunnel project, voters are rightly concerned about transportation funds being wasted (though, the state likes to point out, the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, is on the hook for delivering the tunnel for the contract amount). This package drives important reforms that will give taxpayers more confidence.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.