The failure of the Washington state legislature to pass a transportation funding package last month, which could have included $750 million to connect the North Spokane Corridor to Interstate 90, has raised questions about the outlook for projects in the Spokane area.
While the state House of Representatives passed a funding bill, the Senate failed to bring its $12.3 billion bill forward to vote. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, says that some of the main building blocks of the package were agreed upon, but the overall package couldn’t get political traction.
“I was pleased that investment in the (North Spokane Corridor) was a part of every proposal … but unfortunately the Senate majority never brought a transportation investment package forward for a vote,” Billig says.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, calls the failure of the Senate to bring forth a package “a huge disappointment.”
“I just don’t think there was the political will … to bring it to vote,” Riccelli says.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, says that House Democrats from the West Side wanted more resources for downtown Seattle, while Senate Republicans wanted to protect Eastern Washington taxpayers.
“Seattle Democrats wanted to roll the dice in the election; would they be able to get more resources?” Baumgartner says. “Right now, the Senate is controlled by Eastern Washington Republican senators. If they were to win and take the Senate back, they could get more resources.”
Also a factor in the failure of the package, Baumgartner claims, was Gov. Jay Inslee’s signing in October of an agreement with Oregon and California that would commit Washington to limits on carbon fuel emissions, which Baumgartner says could lead to higher prices at the pump.
“That was a really complicating factor,” he says. “It would help if he took that off the table and did not do anything like that by executive order.”
However, Billig says that the fuel emission standards haven’t been implemented here yet, and in California, where they were implemented, he claims the impact on gas prices was shown to be less than $.01 a gallon.
“It’s just a smokescreen,” he asserts. “Part of it was there was a blame game going on, and that’s why it didn’t pass.”
Another sticking point was that the package called for an 11.5-cent increase in the gas tax over the next three years to generate some of the funds for projects.
Joe Tortorelli, executive director of the Spokane Good Roads Association and the Spokane area representative for the Washington State Transportation Commission, claims that some legislators didn’t support the package because of that provision.
“They believe the majority of the populace is against increased tax,” he says.
Tortorelli says a survey done by the transportation commission showed that 56 percent of those surveyed supported higher gas taxes and fees if they meant funding for better roads. Tortorelli calls the number of people surveyed a “valid sample size,” but says legislators were skeptical.
“They all said ‘Oh, well, you can make surveys say what you want them to say,’” he says.
Billig says that while increasing the gas tax isn’t something legislators should take lightly, the money could help boost the job market and economy here.
“If you look at the big picture, a transportation investment package is about jobs: short-term construction jobs and the long-term infrastructure for a stable economy,” he says. “If that’s what we focus on, those job advantages are so big, I think it’s worth a potential increase in tax.”
Rich Hadley, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, says he finds voters’ exception to the proposed gas price increase “ironic,” because those prices already fluctuate frequently, he says.
“If we pass a bill to fund our infrastructure and 11 cents is phased in over three years, it’s probably imperceptible; there’s so much volatility in that price as it is,” he says.
Hadley also stresses the importance of completing the North Spokane Corridor, which he says is essential to cutting down on semitrailer traffic in town, especially on streets with a lot of stoplights. Hadley, who commutes from Colbert, Wash., says he counted 22 stoplights on his way to downtown one morning last week.
“I went through 20 of them, and I got stopped by all but three,” he says. “Think about that with a truck hauling goods to market; going through an urban area, going through 22 stoplights and what that does to lost productivity and emissions.”
Hadley says he believes business owners here are looking for a new package to be passed as soon as possible.
“I think there’s a very strong business push across the state that we have this addressed either before the next legislative session after the election or in the next biennium,” he says. “There are projects that have to be completed, and there are tremendous needs in maintenance and preservation that need to be addressed.”
Hadley says GSI is meeting with legislators in the interim period to discuss the issues. It also planned to hold a meeting on Thursday, April 24, for transportation leaders to discuss the package with legislators and receive an update from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“Part of it is communicating the importance to the public,” he says.
Riccelli says that the upcoming House and Senate elections this fall could also play a part in the next package.
“It’s hard to know what the next steps are until after the election,” he says. “We need to keep open lines of communication and we need to keep meeting as local legislators … for us to get our fair share of this package, it’s going to take votes from both sides of the aisle.”
In addition to securing funding for transportation projects and maintenance, legislators here say that some reforms need to be made to the state Department of Transportation. Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, says there’s currently a list of about 10 possible reforms.
“I don’t think anyone in the legislature is asking for all 10,” he says. “But there do need to be some reforms to make the department more efficient.”
An example of the proposed reforms is ensuring the legislature is notified of mistakes on transportation projects that cost more than $500,000, Parker says.
Recent design flaws with the 520 Bridge and the Alaska Way Tunnel in Seattle have raised questions, but Tortorelli says such mistakes happen with large projects.
“They’re billion-dollar projects; you’re bound to have some things go wrong,” he says.
Tortorelli says the Department of Transportation has agreed to nearly all the reforms; however, many of the suggested changes will require action by the legislature, he says.
“They keep saying, ‘We gotta have reforms, we gotta have reforms,’” he says. “But most of them are things the legislature needs to take action on.”
Another possible reform involves no longer charging sales tax on transportation projects. Washington state currently charges itself a 10 percent sales tax on transportation projects and puts the money into general funds, Baumgartner says. He contends the state should ensure that tax revenues derived from such projects continue going to transportation projects.
“We could have 10 percent more for road projects by not charging the sales tax or not putting it into general funds,” he says. “You can think of it as every project in the state is 10 percent more expensive than it needs to be.”
Baumgartner also says that finding the funds to maintain and preserve existing roadways is going to be a challenge.
“The state does have a real maintenance challenge coming,” he says. “In previous transportation packages … legislators made some bad decisions.”
With the large funding package held up in the legislature for the time being, leaders here are considering other sources of revenue. One possible option could be pursuing federal dollars for projects. However, Tortorelli says that a looming potential bankruptcy of the U.S. Highway Trust Fund means there isn’t much to go around for projects like the North Spokane Corridor.
“The feds don’t have any money either,” he says.
The Highway Trust Fund collects 18.4 cents per gallon of gas throughout the country, Tortorelli says, and the money is allocated out to states and regional transportation councils for projects. However, by July, the fund will go into deficit, Tortorelli claims.
Thus far, most of the North Spokane Corridor work has been funded by state dollars, Tortorelli says.
“As it is now, out of the $680 million that’s been invested in the NSC, only about $63 million is federal money,” he says. “The rest has all been state money.”
Hadley says he believes the best outcome would be having a comprehensive transportation package adopted by the legislature no later than January 2015. The ideal package would include $750 million to complete the NSC to I-90 as well as funding for widening state Route 904, putting an interchange on the West Plains, and continuing to widen I-90 to the Idaho border, as well as funds for preservation and maintenance, he says.
Transportation packages such as the failed one, Hadley says, tend to identify what are known as mega-projects throughout the state. The North Spokane Corridor, Hadley says, is the only mega-project on the eastern side of the state.
“It needs to be completed this time. This is it,” he says.
Riccelli also calls for the completion of the North Spokane Corridor, saying, “I’m tired of talking about a project that started some 20 years before I was born. It’s time to get that thing done.”
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