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Hobbs’s $17 billion transportation package gets public hearing

Senator Steve Hobbs’s ambitious 10-year transportation plan had its public hearing on Thursday afternoon in the Senate Transportation Committee. The funding plan, which Hobbs is calling “Forward Washington,” includes $16.6 billion to be put toward a variety of transportation and environmental projects throughout the state.

The transportation funding package is made up of three bills: SB 5970 authorizes the sale of $5 billion of general obligation bonds for transportation funding; SB 5971 outlines the 20 different sources of revenue for the transportation fund; and SB 5972 details the specific projects that the funding will go toward.

As it stands now, the Forward Washington plan includes 80 different transportation and environmental projects to be tackled over the next ten years. Priority projects include the I-5 bridge replacement in Vancouver, rebuilding the US 2 trestle, the widening of several state routes, and stormwater retrofits and improvements.

Along with these highway improvements, $3.5 billion of the proposed spending is slated for the removal and replacement of fish culverts throughout the state, and $1.67 billion would go toward the electrification of Washington State Ferry vessels and terminal construction.

During the public hearing, several mayors and elected officials from around the state testified in support of the funding package, specifically pointing to the transportation projects in their districts and cities. Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin praised the inclusion of funding for the US 2 trestle; Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson highlighted the importance of widening SR 18; and Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson spoke in support of projects and improvements for the I-90 corridor.

The package also received support from representatives from the Washington Public Ports Association, the City of Vancouver, Skagit County, Kirkland, the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County, the Association of Counties, and the Washington State Building & Construction Trades Council, among others.

Funding for these projects would come from a variety of sources, but the largest portion would come from a new “carbon pollution fee” equal to $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide starting July 2020. Unlike recent attempts to pass carbon fees in Washington, this proposal does not progressively increase the fee. The carbon fee would bring in approximately $7.88 billion over the 10-year plan.

Also making up a significant portion of the funding is an additional 6 cent per gallon gas tax which is expected to bring in $2.2 billion. Additional funding would come in the form of increases to vehicle weight fees, auto parts sales and use tax increases, additional electric vehicles fees, and assessed value transportation impact fees.

A large portion of those testifying as “con” or “other” on the funding package spoke out against the carbon fee and the additional fees put in place to raise revenue.

Tim Boyd, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Western Energy Consumers, told the committee that a carbon tax should be considered on its own, not as part of a large transportation package.

“Putting a price on carbon has been a well-debated subject in numerous bills and initiatives. It is a major policy issue unto itself. And we believe it should be treated that way, as opposed to being put into this transportation funding package, which inevitably, as we’ve learned today, pits those who have good projects or want to build them, against those that are being asked to pay for it,” said Boyd.

From another perspective, Adam Maxwell, the State Campaign Manager at the National Audubon Society, expressed concern that the carbon price would stay stagnant at $15 per metric ton of carbon and that the revenue wouldn’t go toward reducing emissions.

“We are worried about a static, $15 dollar per ton carbon fee, which actually in a lot of ways is a declining carbon fee because of inflation. We’re also worried that it’s just not likely to be enough to reduce emissions…We are very much in favor of a carbon fee and we want to find a way to get a carbon fee that funds the kinds of solutions we need to solve the climate crisis,” said Maxwell.  

Another key point of contention for some testifying concerned the bills’ implications for a low carbon fuel standard.

As part of the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package, Republicans put in a so-called “poison pill” provision that would automatically shift certain funds away from transit and multimodal transportation and put them toward roads if a state agency implemented a low carbon fuel standard before July 1, 2023. The new Forward WA transportation plan would make those provisions permanent and would additionally apply the provisions to any local governments that may wish to implement a low carbon fuel standard.

“Unfortunately, SB 5971, on balance, is not beneficial for the climate. That’s because it discards an existing tool to reduce emissions — a clean fuel or low carbon fuel standard,” testified Craig Kenworthy, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. “I ask you to take out the poison pill in this bill… I ask you not to pit this set of investments against a valuable tool for defending the future.”

Throughout the public hearing, Sen. Hobbs repeatedly stressed that the package is a “living document” and that he is open to changes.

“I want to let all the members know, and those that are testifying for and against, that this is a living document here. So, I’m going to make changes to this. I’m already thinking about changes to some of the revenues, some of the expenditures.”

“What I want to do is provide an option that says, ‘ok if we’re going to do something, let’s pour investment back into our state with our environment and infrastructure,’” continued Hobbs. “The needs are not going to go away… We’re still going to need a new bridge, someday we’re going to have deal with that US Supreme Court [culvert] decision, and we don’t have the money to do it. And so I’m hoping that maybe this is an option.”

Editor’s note: Two of the included links are broken, as the Washington State Senate Democrats’ website is undergoing server issues.

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