Wash. lawmakers still negotiating transportation plan; special session not a certainty

OLYMPIA, Wash. – As lawmakers continue to work on reaching an agreement on a transportation package, a Senate panel Thursday held a public hearing on a $12.3 billion proposal that includes an 11 1/2-cent gas tax increase and puts money toward road projects across the state.

More than 100 people packed a conference room, as well as an overflow room, for the Senate Transportation Committee’s public work session.

Committee co-chair Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the proposal was “based upon the idea that we can no longer ignore maintenance and preservation and that we need to complete what we’ve started.”

No bills have been drafted for the package, and King stressed that the details could change.

“Hence, we are listening to what you have to say to us today,” he said.

Lawmakers have been struggling all year to reach agreement on a transportation plan. Earlier this year, Democrats in the House approved a plan that would increase the gas tax by 10 1/2 cents. A Republican-dominated coalition in the Senate rejected efforts to bring up the package for a vote, saying they wanted to see policy reforms first.

And even though Gov. Jay Inslee has been pushing for lawmakers to reach an accord, no action on transportation was taken in subsequent special legislative sessions, including one earlier this month.

Before the hearing, King said he hoped House Democrats and Senate leadership can come to an agreement and possibly have a special session before the regular legislative session begins Jan. 13, but he says they still have work to do.

City officials testifying Thursday encouraged lawmakers to move quickly.

“Timing is critical,” said Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke.

“Let’s get a decision this year for all of us,” she said. “The price will only go up, as well as the aggravation and congestion.”

The plan put forth by the Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate includes no tolls on Interstate 90, pays for a new floating bridge on State Road 520 and puts money toward a variety of road projects. It also seeks to redirect sales tax money from transportation projects to a transportation fund instead of the general fund, and transfers money out of an environmental cleanup account.

House transportation chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, says there is some disagreement on transit and other issues, but she said they are making good progress. Another meeting between House and Senate negotiators and Inslee is set for Friday.

Clibborn said she understands that the public may resist a gas tax, but “the investment that we make in this infrastructure is going to pay off.”

“A lot of people driving to their Thanksgiving meals will notice the congestion and be wondering what we’re doing about it,” she said. “We’re all in this together. A package that does something in every part of the state will be something that benefits everyone.”