Transit, bike, and business interests are all warning Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to slow down as he mulls aloud the implementing by executive order of a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) that could trigger higher gas costs and would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars in just-approved transportation budget funds from multimodal options to a more general pool where they could end up being spent on highways.
The trigger if Inslee acted unilaterally without legislative approval, would be Senate Republican-inspired “poison pill” or “consumer protection clause” language peppering the final transportation bill. At risk could be line items totaling as much as $1.7 billion in green transportation spending and related programs identified in the new law’s balance sheet.
The Senate Majority Caucus inserted the trigger language in the bill to guard against wallet wallop, because to fix and expand Washington’s badly-sagging transport infrastructure, the bill already raises gas taxes 12 cents per gallon in the next two years. The proposed LCFS could tack on as much as another 10 cents per gallon for gas buyers and 12 cents per gallon for diesel by 2026, according to a 2014 update for the state. A critique from the Western States Petroleum Association accents sharper price spikes seen under similarly-structured LCFS plans in California and Oregon.
The idea is to cut life-cycle carbon intensity of vehicle fuels 10 percent by the middle of the next decade through mandated growth in blending biofuels and other green fuels with regular gas and diesel. In Washington almost half of the state’s carbon emissions are from the transportation sector.
The statewide advocacy group Washington Bikes says the threatened projects would amount to almost $2 billion, including transportation-related environmental and other work. A primary tier of affected funds includes line items from the balance sheet totalling $947 million, of:
- $111 million in transit project grants
- $75 million in bike/pedestrian grants
- $89 million in bike and pedestrian projects
- $56 million in Safe Routes to School grants
- $106 million in Complete Streets grants
- $200 million in Special Needs Transit grants
- $200 million in Regional Mobility grants
- $110 million in Rural Mobility grants
Adding to that subtotal – and also seen by nonpartisan legislative policy staff as subject to the poison pill clause – is another $783 million:
- $33 million in rail slope improvements
- $31 million freight rail projects
- $47 million in Palouse River and Coulee City rail capital
- $63 million in local rail projects
- $123 million in Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board funds
- $375 million in Cities and Counties Direct Distribution
- a $31 million vanpool grant program
- $5 million in transit coordination grants
- $33 million in alternative fuel commercial vehicle tax credits
- $41 million in commute trip reduction tax credits
- and $1 million electric vehicle infrastructure bank capitalization
According to policy staff and transit advocates, break-out sheets from the state’s Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program (LEAP) on the approved transportation budget further detail:
- the $111 in threatened transit projects, including ones in Yakima, King County, Everett, San Juan County, Seattle, Spokane, and Skagit and Island counties;
- the $89 million in threatened bike and pedestrian projects, in the same counties and cities.
Inslee has been “reviewing options” on adopting a LCFS by executive order and rulemaking, and discussing that option in meetings with “lawmakers, transit and bike advocates, seniors, environmentalists, business people and others,” said his spokesman David Postman. Postman added, “there is no set time for a decision.”
The Governor should “hit the pause button” before triggering the poison pill clause, says Andrew Austin, Policy Director for the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition. “We really want a path to both a low carbon fuel standard and more walking, biking and transit” in the state’s transport network, “but this is a surefire way to defund this historic state investment” in those options.
The governor and lawmakers should explore together how to get both, Austin said. Lawmakers have previously indicated willingness to consider a fuel standard proposal enacted legislatively, rather than by Inslee’s envisioned executive order.
Jeff Aken, Advocacy Director of the Cascade Bicycle Club – which this past week issued an action alert to members urging pressure on Inslee to back off from an executive order – said the Governor should work to tie together multimodal transportation and cleaner air, rather than “pitting them against each other.”
Gary Chandler, Vice President for Government Affairs at the Association of Washington Business, told the Washington State Wire that Inslee spoke to him Tuesday, and “we told him to leave the thing be. We believe the transportation package in and of itself is a climate bill” through provisions to relieve traffic congestion, further incentivize green vehicle usage, and enhance biking, walking and transit. The latter included not only transit grants but leeway for Sound Transit to put a multi-billion dollar Phase Three construction spending measure to Puget Sound voters in 2016.
Businesses in Washington had a tough enough time coming to terms with the 12 cent per gallon gas tax hike, but many did, added Chandler. However, to tack on the additional gas price hike from a fuel standard is to “put Washington at a real competitive disadvantage with other states. We have a good competitive advantage now due to lower electric power rates” stemming from the state’s prescient investment in hydropower and mustn’t torpedo that, said Chandler. Any low carbon fuel standard needs to be part of a uniform national program, he added.
Implementing a LCFS in any fashion here is to “go down the same path as California and Oregon,” said Chandler. Both states have travelled a rocky road on implementation. The California plan was delayed after legal challenges and is only now resuming under doubts its goals can be met, while in Oregon a measure rammed through by Democratic lawmakers this spring not only sunk a state transportation spending bill, but has also sparked a drive for a ballot measure to alter or rescind it.
State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Burien Democrat and Chair of the House Environment Committee, also met with Inslee this week. He said he’s “not happy with the choice” between leaving a fuel standard alone for now versus an executive order triggering the potential shift of transit, bike and pedestrian funds now in the spending bill. “It would be a loss for the (types) of projects identified in the package. Having to fight that battle” to restore the funding, “would be a hard fight.”
Whatever choice the Governor makes, said Fitzgibbon, “I hope he has some plan of attack for the piece left behind.” The problem for environmental advocates seeking a broad measure in the state to limit carbon impacts is that the fuel standard by fiat is all that’s left on the table now, he added.
A ballot measure for a carbon tax being advanced by signature gatherers could face voters in fall 2016 but that or an alternate version which might surface is nothing for climate activists to hang their hat on, said Fitzgibbon. “I can’t in good conscience say we’ll put all our eggs in a ballot initiative strategy,” he said.
If Inslee acts and the fuel standard were to eventually withstand the inevitable legal challenges from trucking and other industries – as it well might – how much benefit would it really bring, environmentally?
Washington’s own report, prepared for the Office of Financial Management by consultants and updated last year, estimates that even in a “business as usual scenario” without a LCFS, that “improving fuel economy and a lower forecast of vehicle miles travelled results in a 20 percent reduction in…petroleum consumption between 2016 and 2026,” whereas a LCFS cuts consumption 24 to 29 percent.
Meanwhile, it seems clear that alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle need the boost that the transportation budget would help provide. The Regional Travel Survey for 2014 released this June by the Puget Sound Regional Council estimates that in the state’s biggest population hub of greater Seattle, more than four of five overall trips are by car, with 11 percent on foot, 4.2 percent on transit, 1.3 percent on bike and 2 percent via other means.
The gains have been modest from previous surveys in 1999 and 2006.
Looking at commute trips only, the survey shows 71 percent of 2014 trips in solo vehicles, eight percent in multi-occupant vehicles, three percent on bikes, 13 percent on transit, and one percent via “other.”
How real is the threat of Inslee going ahead on his own with a fuel standard? Tweets and alerts and news reports have been flying about; and the self-styled Climate Warrior Governor is clearly feeling legacy angst after agreeing to the transportation package with disincentives for a LCFS; and failing earlier in the year to win lawmaker approval of a signature carbon cap-and-trade bill.
One legislative source warned that the trigger clause is a bit more nuanced than some may think. “It is the executive branch that will be managing the relevant state accounts and will be interpreting the trigger language and its corresponding ramifications. The Legislature does not manage state accounts – it enacts statewide policy, and then the executive implements according to its interpretations. The Legislature can then react accordingly, if it so chooses.”
React the legislature certainly would – and not only the GOP Senate Caucus.
Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He’s been a regular op-ed contributor to The Seattle Times; Senior Editor for Mozilla’s The Open Standard; Editor-in-Chief for the Washington Business Alliance; a Senior Fellow at Cascadia Center for Regional Development; and an environmental organizer in suburban Chicago and south King County. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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