House Ups the Ante with $26 Billion Transportation Package

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WSDOT is studying ultra-high-speed rail, upgrading its existing fleet which tops out at 120mph. (Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation)

On Tuesday, Washington House Democrats revealed an ambitious transportation package exceeding dueling senate proposals by more than $10 billion. The 16-year package would raise $26 billion, with $8 billion set aside for carbon reduction projects–$17 billion, meanwhile, is in a highway-related category.

The bill relies primarily on increases to the gas tax (which would be indexed to inflation) and a carbon fee to fund its investments. The carbon fee would kick in on January 1st, 2023 starting at $15 per ton, rise to $20 after two years, and to $25 by 2027. It is projected to raise $7.5 billion. The gas tax would raise $17 billion, including the diesel tax differential.

The headline of The Seattle Times story yesterday read “Gas taxes and fees could reach $1 per gallon under new Washington state transportation proposal,” adding together existing state and federal taxes, the 18-cent hike, subsequent increases from indexing to inflation, and the expected carbon fee impact: 15 cents. Several Republican lawmakers have already spoken out against any gas tax increases, pointing to the recession as poor timing.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle say the gas tax revenue is strictly restricted by Washington state’s 18th amendment to highway purposes–though they could likely sidestep that requirement if they set their minds to it. The carbon fee would be spent on carbon reduction, at least. The bill would also levy about $2 billion in assorted registration and licensure fees–setting portions aside in the highway safety fund, highway patrol fund, and a flexible multimodal fund.

In the carbon reduction plan, the package allocates $5 billion dollars for bike, pedestrian, and transit projects, which would be unprecedented investment from the state, as Ryan Packer detailed in Seattle Bike Blog. Much of that is various transit grant programs; plus, Amtrak Cascades gets $721 million operations funding and $143 million in capital investment. Additionally, $569 million is specifically for ferry system electrification and $2.5 billion goes into a general carbon reduction fund.

The highway-related spending plan invests $3.5 billion in fish-friendly culverts (which is a court-mandated intervention to meet Stevens Treaties made with Northwest tribes), maintenance and preservation composes $4.6 billion, the ferry system get an additional $1 billion for capital improvements and operations, and $6.7 billion in a general highway slush fund dubbed “freight projects.” Among the few projects definitively funded is $1 billion for the Columbia River Crossing which supercharges freeway infrastructure in Vancouver, Washington and provides a new earthquake-resilient bridge to Portland–now rechristened “Interstate Bridge Replacement.”

“We’re proposing $6.7 billion in new road-related investments, $1 billion for the Interstate Replacement Bridge connecting Washington and Oregon, and fully funding fish passages,” said Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver) in a statement. “There are also significant investments to reduce carbon. We do so using a wide range of strategies, including alternative fuels, the electrification of vehicle fleets, and increased spending for multi-modal services such as transit and special needs transportation along with bike and pedestrian projects.” 

Rep. Wylie said the Columbia River bridge should be “adaptable” to rail use, but avoided promising rail would go on it when it opened. Backlash over light rail was one factor that sunk the Columbia Crossing the first go around, with many in Clark County suburbia opposed to a light rail connection to Portland. Since then, high-speed rail talks have heated up and got a federal champion in President Joe Biden, suggesting the bridge really should be designed to facilitate the Portland to Seattle high speed rail line hoping to cut travel times to one hour.

During the press event unveiling the package, House Transportation Chair Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) said the highway projects (beyond Columbia River Crossing) weren’t pinned down yet because sponsors intended that negotiation to happen as the bill advanced. He pitched the effort as a climate effort and a job creation one, too.

“Our proposal is much more substantial than any in state history because the needs and challenges are so much bigger,” Fey said in a statement. “Those needs include long-overdue investments in preserving and maintaining our current transportation system, help for frontline communities, and carbon reduction to fight climate change. Our proposal will also mean a boom in construction jobs in every corner of the state.”

In a press release, the bill’s sponsors say they held 90 listening sessions across the state to develop the package, and tout their grant-heavy approach as letting local communities identify and fine-tune the investments.

“Everyone deserves a voice,” said Rep. Bill Ramos (D-Issaquah) in a statement. “Our proposal gives members from underserved communities a place on state boards that help determine projects and policies. We will also help women and minority-owned businesses get certified to qualify for transportation projects.” 

By way of comparison the Evergreen Plan authored by Senator Rebecca Saldaña would invest $14.3 billion over 12 years in similar investment. Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs’ Forward Washington proposal–which he tried to advance in both 2019 and 2020–is also back and would spend $16 billion, investing a greater share in highway expansion than the other proposals. The Urbanist Editorial Board has praised the Evergreen Plan for improving greatly on Hobbs’ vision, and the House version is an even bigger step toward state investment in transit, road safety, and climate action.

Senator Hobbs, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)
Senator Hobbs, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, at a youth rally in 2016. (Washington State Democrats)

If Hobbs can reassemble the roadkill caucus in the senate (a moderate wing of the party famous for killing progressive legislation), then he may be able to elbow the progressive proposals out of contention. One roadkill member, Senator Dean Takko (D-Longview) lost reelection as Republican swept the 19th District. Luckily T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) bested anti-transit crusader Steve O’Ban (R-Tacoma) to keep the Democrats 28-21 advantage in the senate and provide another pro-transit, pro-climate vote. Republicans will likely be in lockstep against any proposal due to their tax aversion, which would mean four Democrat senators voting no can sink a transportation bill.

On the other hand, another Hobbs ally in Senator Mark Mullet narrowly won reelection facing a progressive challenge from Ingrid Anderson. Mullet recently announced freeways and the “congestion relief” assumed (falsely) to be gained in widening them are “100%” his top priority, as reported in a recent Mike Lindblom article in The Seattle Times.

Nonetheless, the pandemic and recession may finally be the prod hesitant state legislators need to go big and invest in both infrastructure and climate action rather than compartmentalizing the two to our planet’s detriment.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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J.S.

I’m not sure if I’m reading this right so to be clear. The TOTAL tax increase on gas would add up to a 33-cent per gallon gas? That’s the 15-cent normal gas tax increase + the 18-cent increase via carbon tax combined.

I ask this because conservatives will absolutely do what the Seattle Times did and act like its a $1 tax increase (their headline could have just been 33-cent gas tax increase). When really its increasing from 67-cent to 1-dollar. The bulk of the population will pay so little attention that they will believe its a 1-dollar increase.

Douglas Trumm

That sounds right.

Daniel Thompson

This bill is really driven by the court mandate to fix the culverts, which has a remaining cost of $3.5 billion (although you rarely hear “salmon advocates” clamoring for more spending on this issue despite their despair over car tires). An earlier proposal suggested moving this cost out of the transportation budget to free up transportation funding to the general fund, but then the $3.5 billion would reduce general fund expenditures for truly progressive ideals rather than transit.

Raising the gas tax is regressive, but probably necessary because of the increase in EV’s and better gas mileage. Geographically a very small part of the state has access to any kind of meaningful transit. As Doug notes the majority of the transportation package is for roads and bridges (and “potholes”), which have not received the maintenance they should. This isn’t about taxing carbon to fund transit.

My guess is the Senate transportation bill is more likely to pass, and it is even more focused on roads and bridges, and of course replacing the trestle on US-2 since that is in the right district (although the planned repair is more about cars than multi-modal transportation — the trestle is just too narrow for current car traffic. A carbon tax raises costs for cities and the state too, for everything from police and fire vehicles to buses to electricity.

Let’s be realistic: Inslee’s and the Legislature’s prime issues for 2021 and 2022 are getting the vaccine out (according to a report today WA is the third worst state in administering the vaccine), and restarting the economy, especially the service industry which may be crippled for a long time due to closures. After that is dealing with evictions and refunding the unemployment fund, a huge expense. A capital gains tax will likely be reversed in a referendum, and even some of my Uber progressive friends were shocked at Inslee’s post election call for a 9% capital gains tax.

Infrastructure is a pretty good way to funnel public funds into economic activity, depending on the amount and type of taxes used to fund it. The problem for transit is roads and bridges are ideal for this kind of funding, and provide a lot of local jobs activity at prevailing wages, and just about every senior committee member has roads and bridges in their district, but not rail or even buses. I have a house on Whidbey Island and the roads there are amazing, much better than anything in Seattle, because Mary Margaret Haugen was chair of the transportation committee, and about the one place to spend pork in Island Country is on roads. Great for motorcyclists and those out for a drive, but expensive.

I think if the goal is to increase transit funding, especially rail, especially after the ST 1, 2 and 3, that will be a hyper local funding issue since I don’t think ST 4 will pass in the ST taxing district, which means yesterday’s article about allowing Seattle to levy itself for transit, although the costs for just completing ST 3 in the North King Co. subarea are staggering, and would consume any tax capacity in Seattle for decades.

Other than that a statewide program to fund infrastructure repair is probably the best way to stimulate the economy, and make sure every legislator gets a cut of the pie, and gas and carbon taxes are probably the best vehicles to fund that although in some ways we are only treading water with more EV’s and better gas mileage, except it will almost all go to roads, highways, bridges and car/truck infrastructure, or as AL puts it “shiny new things”, except they will be focused on SOV use because most people drive alone, which isn’t super progressive but reality.

Tom Terrific

There you go again with your SoundTransit phobia. If the ST3 project in North King are as “staggering” as you claim, they simply will be deferred and delayed. The only parts of “WSBLE” (the “West-Seattle Ballard Link Extension”) that genuinely HAVE to be expensive are the two water crossings and the downtown tunnel. There is plenty of opportunity for at-grade running in the middle of 15th West and Fauntleroy; heck, since the temporary repair which has been chosen for the West Seattle Bridge means that only four lanes of traffic will be allowed, taking two lanes out of Fauntleroy up the hill to The Junction is a GOOD IDEA. Limit the fricking traffic arriving from south and west of The Junction and force it to use First South. Cars from Admiral, Avalon and Delridge can certainly fill the bridge with two lanes worth of traffic.

The more you cry about the un-affordability of ST3 the more likely you are to succeed in depriving drivers in Seattle — and the Carpetbaggers from the ‘burbs — of general purpose traffic lanes.

AJ

The 18th amendment shouldn’t be a major issue. Between existing freeway debt, fish culverts, ferry electrification, and repair & maintenance, there are plenty of good ways to spend gas tax money, which frees up other sources of revenue (rental car fees, carbon fees, etc) to invest in multimodal improvements. Long term, I5 in Seattle will need to be replaced or removed, which should consume a vast amount of future gas tax revenues.

Additionally, ST3’s Stride lines are likely to come in on time & under budget mostly due to the fact they piggyback on billions of WSDOT spending on HOT lanes and direct access ramps. Additional investment in highway infrastructure that has a direct transit use, such as direct access ramps, can allow for politicians to create the shinny new things needed to stitch together a funding package while creating little or no new SOV capacity.

For example, it should be straightforward to use the gas tax to fund a US-2 trestle replacement with good multi-modal improvements – bus bypass lanes at the I5 interchange, a multi-use path, etc. – but no expanded SOV capacity. US-2 is an important bus corridor for Snohomish county and improving bus speed & reliability when accessing Everett and/or I5 from central Snohomish county would be a great improvement. With US2 replacement a political priority, that project alone can absorb much of the ‘slush fund.’