The big headlines in the Senate last week—the Senate’s repeated (and failed) attempts to pass the DREAM and Reproductive Parity acts—overshadowed a critical issue with a huge statewide impact: An $8.4 billion, 12-year revenue plan to fund transportation, including megaprojects like the Columbia River Crossing and widening Interstate 405.  

The woman behind the pitch, our newsmaker of the week: Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41, Mercer Island), chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. The $8.4 billion plan is a scaled-down version of a $10 billion version she unveiled earlier this session. With less than a week to go in regular session, Clibborn’s package has big hurdles to clear, including a Senate that’s neither hot on taxes nor keen on putting $450 million toward a bridge between Vancouver and Portland that, for now, includes light rail.

Clibborn's tax package includes a 10-cent increase to the gas tax, phased in over 4 years. The “front-loading” approach, which calls for increasing the tax by 5 cents in the first year and smaller increments in subsequent years, allows for maximum bonding capacity with minimal sticker shock at the pump. The proposal would also increase car tabs, commercial gross weight fees, passenger vehicle weight fees as well as title and registration fees. But Clibborn summed up the biggest difference between her earlier proposal and her earlier one: “It doesn’t have those things that everybody hated,” she said, including the motor vehicle excise tax, hazardous material tax and bicycle tax.

In addition to the I-5 bridge between Washington and Oregon, it would fund – and require tolling on -- megaprojects on SR 167, I-405 and the North-South corridor in Spokane. And it would put $900 million toward maintenance and preservation of existing roads. Clibborn estimates it will create 84,000 jobs in the state. She has also said this proposal will usher in a new era of transportation funding, where road users will be expected to pay tolls to bolster state funding of projects.

The local options include a .3 percent sales tax increase for community transit, 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax for King County Metro, and the creation of transit “sub-districts” to increase sales tax rate up to .9 percent. It’s a big ask, made even bigger by a provision that would allow local voters to raise taxes to fund projects in their area, from saving bus service to repaving disintegrating county roads. The local options include a .3 percent sales tax increase for community transit, 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax for King County Metro, and the creation of transit “sub-districts” to increase sales tax rate up to .9 percent. All of those would require a public vote. It would also allow an increase a doubling of transportation benefit district vehicle fee to $40 with local government approval.

But the sheer size doesn’t mean it’s dead on arrival. Before Friday’s more than four-hour hearing, Clibborn explained the many virtues of the plan and set the stage for debate. “Today is a unique opportunity … we have the momentum and we also have a good bidding environment,” she said. She also emphasized the importance of keeping major corridors up to date. “Some projects keep us competitive with the rest of the world. We need to make that investment so that we don’t lose our edge.”

During the hearing, more people spoke in favor of it than opposed. Included in the supporting group were counties, cities, bicyclists, disability rights advocates and businesses who stressed the need for high-quality transportation infrastructure across the state for everything from freight mobility to quality of life.

Assuming Clibborn can get the bill out of her own committee and has the support of her colleagues in the House, that means the Senate is the bill’s major hurdle. But Sen. Curtis King, the Republican chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, told TVW’s Inside Olympia host Austin Jenkins on Thursday that he could see the package passing his committee and coming to a floor vote in his chamber – if it includes a referendum clause so that voters would get the final say. He says he doesn’t think now is the time for the package, but cited strong public support for his willingness to, at the very least, move aside and allow the bill to pass out of his committee.

Of course, his version of the bill may not include funding for the Columbia River Crossing project. Clibborn said on the same show that it’s critical to fund that project now, but she’s not going to kill a 12-year, $8.4 billion package over any single project.

King and Clibborn’s remarks are starkly different than, say, those shared by Operating Budget writers in the House and Senate, where budget disagreements haven’t lead to any visible compromise so far.

As Clibborn wrapped up her remarks before the hearing on Friday, she said something you’re likely to hear many times as this bill makes its way through the legislative process in the coming week: “There is much to like in these bills. There will never be enough, and everyone has told me that… but there will never be a better time than now.”

For the session's previous Capitol Newsmakers of the Week start here. Not that we're keeping score, but the tally so far is six Democrats to six Republicans. (We didn't award a Newsmaker of the Week for Week six; Week nine was a tie; and last week didn't go to either a D or an R.)

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