Morning Fizz

Legislature Passes $16 Billion (Kidney Stone) Transportation Bill

Environmentalists cheer and condemn epic bill

By Josh Feit July 1, 2015

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1. The state legislature passed a $16.1 billion kidney stone last night. After three years of pledging action on a statewide transportation package (and 10 years since 2005's 9.5-cent gas tax investment in major transportation projects), legislators approved an 11.9-cent gas tax to fund $8.8 billion in roads projects, $1.4 billion in maintenance and preservation, and just less than $1 billion in multimodal projects. Sound Transit will also get authority to seek voter approval for another $15 billion in regional taxes for ST3 to extend the line south from Federal Way to Tacoma, north from Lynnwood to Everett, and expand within Seattle.

The bill passed the house last night largely along partisan lines with Republicans voting nay. (The state senate passed it in a strong bipartisan vote on Monday.) Two of the house's greenest Democrats, state representatives Hans Dunshee (D-44, Snohomish) and environment committee chair Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, West Seattle, Burien), voted against the package along with the Republicans; environmentalists disapprove of a Republican provision in the package—known as the "poison pill"—that bars governor Jay Inslee from enacting low-carbon fuel standards on cars without simultaneously reallocating all the multimodal money in the package to roads spending. That provision highlights another green complaint with the package: Only 6 percent of the total spending goes to multimodal projects in the first place.

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The house's other enviro star, state representative Jessyn Farrell (D-46, North Seattle), voted for the package, but only after she passed an amendment that undid another ornery GOP provision. A last-minute gotcha by the Republicans, first reported this week by PubliCola, would have A) hit Sound Transit with a construction sales tax—ST is traditionally exempt—and B) put the estimated $500 million into the general fund. Not only were Puget Sound voters getting the raw end of that deal by sending a percentage of their local tax dollars to the rest of the state, but the tax compounded another GOP provision that irked Democrats. The package shifts sales tax on state transportation projects out of the general fund, where Democrats wanted all the revenue they could get for things like K–12 spending, and shifts the money, estimated at $1 billion, to pay for the transportation package itself.

Farrell's successful amendment mandates that the ST tax, estimated to increase ST3 project costs by 1 to 2 percent, must go into a "Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account" only, meaning the special ST tax would only serve ST-region taxpayers. Specifically, Farrell's amendment stipulates:

Expenditures from the account...must go to counties where a portion of the county is within the boundaries of a regional transit authority (RTA) that includes a county with a population of one million five hundred thousand or more based on the counties' population within the RTA. The funds going to the designated counties must be used for educational services including for youths that are low income, homeless, or in foster care, or other vulnerable populations.

Farrell had threatened to put the whole $16.1 billion package to a statewide vote with a referendum clause if her amendment wasn't approved. (With its huge tax increase to piss off Republican voters and its 1950s-roads-agenda to sour liberal voters, the package certainly would have faced tough odds at the polls.)

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Transportation state house vice chair Farrell said in a statement late last night after the 54-to-44 vote:

I am pleased that after a decade without significant investment in transportation, the legislature passed a transportation package that will keep Washington moving forward.

This package will help maintain our roads and bridges and make investments in multimodal and transit infrastructure. The package injects over $16 billion in our transportation system, creating jobs and helping to grow our economy. Additionally, the measure gives Sound Transit authority to ask voters to approve $15 billion for much needed transit for the Puget Sound Region. I was successful in fighting to make sure that the additional $500 million in taxes that Sound Transit will pay under this plan will be reinvested back in the Puget Sound area.

The “poison pill” that prevents the Governor from enacting a low-carbon fuel standard remains in the final negotiated agreement. This anti-environmental policy is offensive and doesn’t belong in a transportation budget. I will continue to work with my colleagues and the Governor’s office to establish a low-carbon fuel standard and to take other actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Washington.

Other environmental groups praised the package as well.

Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Andrew Austin issued a supportive, albeit defensive, statement this morning saying: "While this 16 year, $16 billion investment is far from perfect, it is a legislative compromise and we applaud its passage. With millions of dollars of new state transit investments and $15 billion of Sound Transit 3 authority, this deal will go a long way to give Washingtonians more transportation options. While we lament that the state transit investments are not higher and the restrictive language on the clean fuels authority, we commend legislative leaders and the governor for striking a deal that will help maintain local streets and highways, finish the west side of the 520 bridge, commit hundreds of millions state dollars to transit, and allow voters in the Puget Sound Region to choose their own transportation future."

OneAmerica, the civil rights group that increasingly prioritizes transportation policy as part of its social justice mission, came out in support of the bill in the runup to yesterday's vote as well.

OneAmerica director Rich Stolz said in a statement:

OneAmerica respects and appreciates efforts by the Governor and House of Representatives to prevent inclusion of a so-called poison pill attached by Senate Republican Leadership that pits transit funding against clean fuel standards. We are disappointed that the Senate Majority insisted on placing the interests of big oil over the health of our communities, who also face higher levels of transportation-related pollution in Washington state. We hope that there will be an opportunity in the near future to work with state leaders and our allies on all sides of the aisle to find alternate paths to curbing greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunity and a healthy environment.

For now, the transportation package presents an opportunity to fully fund Sound Transit 3 at $15 billion, extending light rail service to underserved communities in Puget Sound, to implement groundbreaking provisions to create equitable transit-oriented development around light rail stations including $20 million in funding for affordable housing, and to invest over $600 million in funding for transportation projects that will make our communities safer and more connected.

The Sierra club, however, dropped the hemming and hawing of its environmental colleagues and sent a letter to speaker of the house state representative Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford) yesterday, denouncing the bill.

Here's an excerpt from Sierra Club Washington's legislative cochair Tim Gould's letter to Representative Chopp:

The latest version of this funding proposal would undermine efforts to curb climate emissions through the significant delay in authority to enact standards for clean fuels. Sierra Club is also opposed to the transportation funding package because it spends over $8 billion on new highway expansion that would make global warming worse.

The transportation sector is the leading source of CO2 emissions in the state (nearly half of all greenhouse gases). Emission reductions necessary to protect the climate will be impossible in WA if we maintain business as usual in transportation spending. This bill would lock in 16 more years of highway expansion in our state. Instead, we need a transportation package that fixes our crumbling roads and bridges first, and increases funding for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle improvements.

 The oil industry should not be allowed to dictate both transportation and climate policy in Washington through the terrible false trade-off of clean fuels standards vs. multimodal transportation investments. Please urge your caucus to vote against the transportation package. 

In short, these are the huge negatives for the transportation proposal: The transportation revenue package spends too much on new highway expansion that would lead to more sprawl and increase GHG emissions; a trade-off between executive authority to develop Clean Fuels standards and new funding for transit and nonmotorized programs is not acceptable; maintenance of the existing system is shortchanged by the emphasis on new projects.

It's a righteous POV, but, as Representative Farrell noted—with $16 million for the Burke-Gilman Trail and $10 million for the Northgate ped/bike bridge, along with $8 million for the Madison Street trolley, $20 million for Metro RapidRide and Metro bus service, plus $900,000 for improvements on MLK Way and Rainier Avenue—the transit pros are hard to ignore. And $15 billion for light rail is nothing to sneeze at.

2. One transportation package that doesn't seem to be getting pushback from the green left is mayor Ed Murray's $930 million property tax levy to fund road and transit upgrades.

During this month's council hearing, the defiant Seattle Greenways group criticized the package; the ped and bike group was demanding more money for Safe Routes to Schools projects—$40 million in new money, specifically for projects near low-income schools, versus Murray's $7 million allocation.

However, after the council passed the plan earlier this week, sending it to voters, several chapters of the citywide greenways groups, including Rainier Valley Greenways, came out in support of the package.

Rainier Valley Greenways leader Phyllis Porter's letter to the mayor and council stated:

We are happy that the Seattle Move Levy will provide for the much-needed infrastructure, education and enforcement to make our city streets safer.

We are particularly concerned with safety of pedestrians and bicyclists on the south end of the city and feel the improvements provided in the Levy will help to improve many parts of Southeast Seattle particularly along Rainier Avenue South, around our schools and transportation centers and especially the major improvements slated for the Mount Baker transportation hub.

Thank you again for passing the proposed Seattle Move Levy at the city council level. We hope this passes at the King County level to be added to the ballot and then it will be in the hands of the public to vote ‘YES’ so that we can have the safe and vibrant neighborhoods that we all deserve.

Seattle Greenways leader Cathy Tuttle, kind of the new Mike McGinn, who led the enviro critique of Murray's plan, told me yesterday that the larger group's position is TBD, but with so many neighborhood chapters like Rainier Valley coming out in favor, "we'll likely vote to support as a whole coalition in the next week or so."

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