Legislature taking up transportation - again

Washington House Transportation Commission Chairwoman Judy Clibborn says passing a transportation package this year will be up to Senate Republicans, but there is at least consensus on funding mechanisms for "mega projects" among party lines.

Eastside lawmakers said Tuesday they expect to be out of Olympia within 60 days after the state Legislature convenes next week, and the major topic of debate will likely continue to be a state transportation package Gov. Jay Inslee had hoped to have passed last year.

"The problem was that we had one side of the House that had a voted position," said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, "and we didn't have a voted position on the (Majority Coalition Caucus) side and we were unable to figure out what the votes would be in the Senate. … I think we need to have something come from the Senate that we can negotiate in a more traditional way."

The contentious issue of tolling the I-90 bridge to pay for completion of SR 520 appears dead, Clibborn said. Instead, a majority of state lawmakers favor an 11.5-cent increase in the gas tax to be phased in over the next 12 years to generate nearly $12 billion in additional revenue, she said.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said while the state Senate hasn't fully dealt with the issue of getting a transportation package rolled out, a proposed gas tax is getting favor. He said the problem within the House is "posturing" over public transportation funding.

Clibborn said many lawmakers within the coalition caucus are from rural districts in the state and can't appreciate the importance of public transportation as it is less prominent in their communities compared to here in the Puget Sound region.

"The ideological difference is the Democrats and some Republicans realize there is a state role in helping public transit," she said.

Another issue expected to be highly debated is a push by the coalition caucus to remove sales tax associated with state transportation projects from the general fund and use it to fund more projects or do away with sales tax on such projects entirely.

The governor has voiced his opposition to the proposal as it would take away funding for other priorities, such as education.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, at Tuesday's Eastside Chambers Coalition Legislative Breakfast in Bellevue, said he heard from many Washington residents during a statewide Senate tour last year who want money spent on transportation to continue being spent on transportation. He said investing more in transportation projects will drive the economy and eventually make up for lost revenue.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, said closing tax loopholes to replace lost revenue has always been an option.

"When we've had that idea suggested, we've hit a brick wall," he said. "I think there's room to negotiate."

Clibborn told The Reporter following the legislative breakfast she will watch what the Senate does about passing a transportation package, and if the majority Republicans there can't come to an agreement, she hopes a more moderate proposal will come forward.

"I don't think they can get it out of the Senate, so I'm done negotiating until they can come up with something that can actually pass."

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