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New bridges and ferries, wider highways, and free fares in freshly passed WA transportation package

Washington Dept. of Transportation

Majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature drove the largest transportation spending roadmap in state history across the finish line on Thursday on nearly party line votes. The revenue and spending package funds new spans over the Columbia River, wider highways, four new ferries, bus rapid transit expansions, free fares for youth, fish-friendly culverts and new bike trails and pedestrian bridges.

On the final day of the 2022 legislative session, the state House passed the 16-year, $17 billion transportation package on a pair of votes of 54-44 and 57-41. The state Senate followed suit an hour later with a 29-20 and a 30-19 vote that sent the package to Gov. Jay Inslee's desk. Inslee supported the sweeping proposal and is expected to sign the measures in a few weeks.

With minimal Republican input, Democratic lawmakers stitched together infrastructure money coming from the federal government, an expected surge in fee revenue from the state’s new cap-and-trade program to fight climate pollution, higher fees from vehicle and driver licensing and grabbed a sizeable chunk of the surplus in the state's general treasury. State Senate Transportation Committee Chair Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) said it was also noteworthy what wasn’t on the list.

"I made a promise to my constituents that we weren't going to raise gas taxes in this difficult moment," Liias said. “I’m proud that we’re delivering on that promise to invest in our infrastructure without asking struggling families to take on more of that cost.”

The absence of a gas tax hike in what was dubbed the "Move Ahead WA" package was just one of several notable departures from the Washington Legislature's traditional approach to major highway and transit funding packages. Another break from tradition was the exclusion of Republican lawmakers from the formulation and decision making on this package.

"There was absolutely no input from my side of the aisle. In my opinion, that shortchanges the citizens of the state of Washington," said Sen. Curtis King, ranking Republican on the state Senate Transportation Committee. "We could have done this better."

During a news briefing Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle said one reason Republicans were left to watch from the outside was because earning their votes by adding more road projects would have swelled the Move Ahead WA package to as much as $30 billion.

Saldaña and other authors of the spending blueprint were eager to crow about the historic allocations to “green transportation” projects. Transit operating subsidies, bus lane work, electrification of transit fleets and sidewalk improvements total more than $3 billion. The state Senate insisted on a $150 million down payment for "ultra-high speed rail" – in other words, a Vancouver, B.C.-to-Seattle-to-Portland bullet train – contingent on the receipt of federal matching dollars. Youth under the age of 18 can soon ride for free on public transit along with ferries and Amtrak Cascades.

Spending on engineering, concrete and asphalt for cars to drive upon – the things most people immediately picture in a transportation infrastructure package – accounts for less than half of the total spending in this package. The total for roadway expansion, preservation and maintenance comes to around $7.2 billion.

The single biggest highway construction project ticketed for funding in the new transportation package is $1 billion for Washington's share of the cost to replace the old and seismically-vulnerable Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver. The spending blueprint also includes a contribution toward a better bridge over the Columbia at Hood River, Oregon.

Earlier this month, lawmakersjettisoned the most controversial element of the funding package. That was a proposed tax on gasoline and diesel delivered to out-of-state customers from Washington refineries. The "exported fuel tax" drew strong blowback from politicians and constituencies in Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

The Democrats’ first attempt to replace the stricken export fuel tax with something else that would generate close to $2 billion over 16 years ran into a thicket of protest, too. The replacement idea to siphon off $100 million per year from a state loan fund used by Washington cities and counties to build sewer, water, garbage and stormwater projects drew loud squawks from local governments and the state Public Works Board that serves them.

In the end, the raid on the Public Works Assistance Account was trimmed back to $57 million per year for 15 years, which only modestly allayed concern about addressing a backlog of local sewer and water projects.

“I’m disappointed the legislature continues to divert revenues that we had counted on returning next year,” said Public Works Board Chair Kathryn Gardbow in a statement. “Without new funding, and the loss of these revenues, we will have to look at our numbers to see if we can run another loan cycle over the next year.”

Washington drivers may notice significant increases in the price of some license renewals and initial car registrations. For example, the surcharge to get an Enhanced Driver’s License for smooth border crossings and air travel will go up from $24 to $42 in October. The price of license plates for a new car rises from $10 to $50. Newcomers from out-of-state seeking to register their vehicle in Washington are subject to an additional fee to check if the vehicle was previously stolen, which will rise from $15 to $50 on July 1 and then to $75 in 2026.

Republican transportation leaders said the licensing fee increases could have been avoided with a partial diversion of the sales tax on cars, which now flows into the operating budget that pays for schools, human services, prisons and other general government programs. This suggestion was a non-starter among majority Democrats.

Even with $17 billion in new spending on transportation on its way, some big ticket, highly sought projects were left at the roadside. For one, the aging Washington State Ferries fleet needs more new vessels than the four hybrid-electric ferries paid for in the Move Ahead WA package. For another, Snohomish County commuters are left waiting for significant construction money to fix the perpetual traffic jam on the outmoded Highway 2 trestle stretching east from I-5 in Everett.

Liias said state lawmakers will have to go back to the well to rustle up additional money for additional wants long before the newly approved 16-year package winds down.
Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.