Jonathan Cartu Writes: Washington Legislature 2021: a chance of fuel taxes ahead - Jonathan Cartu - Moving & Transportation Services
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Jonathan Cartu Writes: Washington Legislature 2021: a chance of fuel taxes ahead

Washington Legislature 2021: a chance of fuel taxes ahead

Jonathan Cartu Writes: Washington Legislature 2021: a chance of fuel taxes ahead

Washington state’s clogged transportation network caught a break in 2020, when COVID-19 slashed driving by 15% and erased 60% of transit ridership, giving public officials a year to punt on solutions.

Now that a new year has arrived, state legislators will feel new urgency to tackle gridlock, underfunded roads and bridges and the question of whether to pass a massive mobility plan.

Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, says he’ll take a hiatus from National Guard deployment so he can make a third attempt at brokering a multibillion dollar Forward Washington plan. Without a statewide package, Hobbs will lose another year in his quest to replace the jammed Highway 2 westbound trestle, which connects his constituents to Everett.

Gov. Jay Inslee, burned by voters‘ and lawmakers’ rejection of carbon pricing, will try again to jump-start his climate agenda by proposing $318 million for ferry electrification along with low-carbon fuel standards, $20 million for pedestrian, bike and school-zone improvements and $3.25 million to plan future high-speed rail.

“To meet our greenhouse-gas reduction targets, we must aggressively diversify our transportation infrastructure,” Inslee said. “Electrifying our vehicles, vessels and buses is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon pollution.”

The state is far behind its target of reducing carbon emissions 25% by 2035.

On the minority side, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, supports minimal or zero new taxes in 2021 while citizens are still hurting from COVID-related business restrictions. Lawmakers should limit their ambitions to maintenance and projects already approved, he said.

Expect a tug of war over whether carbon taxes should be funneled to transit as opposed to plain gasoline taxes which the state constitution’s 18th Amendment reserves for roads.

As these visions compete, drama in the virtual Capitol will be compounded by less transparency, as public testimony and committee hearings move online, said Barkis.

Hobbs joked in a phone interview that, “I would rather do my military duty, because at least I know who my enemy is. Do I really want to go there [Olympia] and get the crap beat out of me? Anything you do will be judged.”

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, forecasts a tough path to agreement, because at least three or four versions will be proposed. Lawmakers must reach a bipartisan, 60% agreement to sell bonds to finance projects.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, drafted a 12-year, $14.3 billion Evergreen Plan heavy on carbon fees, plus a tax on luxury aircraft and yachts. She would fund maintenance at $1.9 billion, which is far above other proposals but avoids lane additions — except for counting Hobbs’ favored Highway 2 as “deferred preservation.”

“In the Puget Sound region, managing traffic requires making sure we’re not just adding stuff to our system, and pushing traffic down to the next exit,” she said.

She called for “environmental justice” in neighborhoods like those around the Duwamish River, divided by historical freeway projects. Aircraft, fossil-fueled ships and freight trucks course through there even during the epidemic. That will continue, she said, so cleaner fuels are a must.

Forward Washington

Hobbs said he’s rewriting the package he proposed in 2019 for $16.6 billion and 10 years.

The biggest project, nominated for $3.175 billion in his original list, is the I-5 Columbia River Crossing. Oregon and Washington last year resumed planning after a 2014 political collapse. The states would replace freeway drawbridges built in 1917 and 1958.

Hobbs said he’s inclined to add $75 million toward repair of the cracked West Seattle high-rise bridge. He sees that of statewide value for port trade and regional travel. It also encourages Seattle lawmakers to back a statewide plan.

“This is a democracy. It’s about trying to get more votes,” said Hobbs.

That’s far beyond the $19 million grant the Seattle Department of Transportation suggested in talks with other lawmakers.

“I really appreciate Sen. Hobbs expressing an interest in the West Seattle Bridge,” said Heather Marx, Seattle mobility director, when told about the higher target. Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, called bridge funding part of “a grand bargain of proposals” being circulated.

Forward Washington’s second-costliest road project is Highway 2, at $1.5 billion in the initial plan. Traffic has tripled since 1980, and a new westbound trestle may add a bus-carpool lane or rely partly on tolls.

Other big-ticket items include $1.7 billion toward ferries, terminals and vessel electrification; $1 billion to highway preservation; a toll-funded $470 million to widen an I-405 bottleneck through Bothell; and a $300 million widening of Highway 3 at Gorst on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Mullet factor

This past fall’s 57-vote victory by Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, over progressive challenger Ingrid Anderson, adds horsepower to Forward Washington.

“I 100% feel congestion relief has got to be the No. 1 priority in a transportation bill,” Mullet told the pro-driving Eastside Transportation Association.

His district was already nominated for $285 million to widen Highway 18 along Tiger Mountain where four lanes narrow to two. People have died in head-on wrecks.

But Mullett now proposes another Eastside project — interchange expansion where I-90 meets I-405 in Bellevue, especially coming from Issaquah toward Lake Washington. It’s common for 60-mph traffic to pass exiting 20-mph traffic when approaching the junction.

“You basically back up all the way to Bellevue College, trying to make that turn,” he said in an interview.

Lawmakers should focus transportation dollars in cities that will welcome rapid business growth, he argues, namely Bellevue as contrasted with Seattle.

Hobbs replied he was willing to…

Jon Cartu

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