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Transportation-Tax Debate Re-Energized by Bridge Collapse – New Reform Bill Coming in the House

Legislature Abuzz in Wake of Skagit River Catastrophe – Accident Gives Turns a Stillborn Tax Proposal Into a Hot Topic

Everything changed when the Skagit River bridge fell last week.

Olympia shook when the Skagit River bridge fell last week.

OLYMPIA, May 29.—A week ago, before the Skagit River bridge came tumbling down, no betting person would have put money on the transportation-tax proposal before the Legislature this year. If anyone was talking about it, the debate was whether the Legislature ought to bother trying.

But now it seems that an apparently accidental bridge collapse has been the luckiest thing that could have happened — at least for those who are interested in seeing the Legislature do something before it adjourns for the year. There is still no telling whether the Legislature will pass the $8.4 billion proposal that is on the table, or whether lawmakers might come up with something new — but the striking thing is that everyone seems interested in the discussion.

Key legislators and stakeholders are set to meet with the governor’s office today to talk about next steps. A new comprehensive transportation-reform bill is being queued up in the House. And in political circles statewide, there seems to be renewed debate about whether enough money in the transportation tax proposal is being allocated for preservation of existing roads and bridges. It might not sound like much. But when you consider that until 7 p.m. Thursday, this year’s tax plan appeared deader than Lindsay Lohan’s cinematic career, even muted mutterings about possible dealmaking represent a dramatic turnabout.

House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

“To those of us who live and breathe transportation, there is no change, but I have people asking me about the transportation package who would never have paid attention,” says state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. “People who thought we could just skip over and not do that – they’re saying, well, now, wait a minute. We have bridges all over the state and we have all kinds of projects across the state that are important, and if we don’t have this revenue package, those needs go away. And so I think it does help us with the momentum.”

It just goes to show how quickly a bit of startling news can rattle the Capitol. Though few lawmakers are present in the state’s capital city, as the current slow-as-molasses special session provides few excuses for attendance, the phone lines have been abuzz for days. The talk now is about spending priorities and reform – how to ensure that money goes to fixing roads and bridges. There are still enormous disputes about whether to launch a controversial bridge project over the Columbia River at Vancouver, and whether to send the package to the ballot for a public vote. And there are some, like Gov. Jay Inslee’s new transportation director, who appear to be making the curious argument that the bridge collapse makes the case for big spending on rail and bus transit. But the difference now appears to be that it is an argument lawmakers think is worth having.

The Luckiest Darn Disaster

You couldn’t imagine a disaster with better timing. Last week the Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5 collapsed when a semi with an oversized load of drilling equipment sheared through overhead support beams and turned the steel trusses into matchsticks. Three vehicles landed in the water; no one was killed. At this point it is generally conceded that the accident had nothing to do with deferred-maintenance issues and deterioration of the structure. But as traffic backs up through the side streets of Mount Vernon and it appears that it will be weeks, if not months, before the main highway of Western Washington is reopened, that particular nuance may not have a lot of meaning. What the accident has done is to pluck an argument that had been raging within the state’s transportation community and place it front and center before the Legislature.

For the last several weeks, key players in the transportation lobby – the Washington Roundtable, the Associated General Contractors – have been arguing that the current tax proposal does not provide enough money for maintenance and preservation of existing roads and highways. Just $911 million goes toward that purpose; meanwhile, for political reasons, other money – perhaps a half-billion dollars in the latest version passed by the House Transportation Committee – goes toward transit, bike paths, stormwater projects and other projects favored by environmental and transit constituencies. Another dispute has concerned the $3 billion that would be allocated toward what are called “mega-projects” – construction of the Columbia River bridge, continuation of the North-South freeway project in Spokane, a start on the connection of Highways 167 and 509 in King and Pierce counties, and a host of other smaller-scale projects.

Doug MacDonald, former secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Doug MacDonald, former secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Former transportation secretary Doug MacDonald has been sounding the alarm in recent weeks, with a series of articles posted on the Seattle website Crosscut, that the transportation package appears to be designed to curry favor in specific regions and with specific constituencies, rather than spending money on improvements to existing highways, where it might do the most good in speeding traffic along. “The thing that is so funny about the package is that it spends money on things like bypasses for Yelm and Belfair, and those things don’t seem as important since last Thursday than the bridges that seem vulnerable,” he says.

Seems like everyone in the news media these days has become an expert on bridge-sufficiency ratings and the national inventory of bridges, MacDonald chuckles, and it reminds him a bit of the public vote in 2005 on the last gas-tax increase. When Hurricane Katrina hit, suddenly everyone was interested in infrastructure. The same thing may be happening now. And the question is how to channel that interest in a productive direction.

New Message Emerges

At a point when lawmakers are in session in name only and members are not meeting face to face, it is a little hard to take the temperature of the Legislature. But when one reads the outpouring of press releases, Facebook messages, blog postings and internal memos from the Department of Transportation, it seems that the debate has indeed shifted from whether to pass a transportation package to how the state ought to rethink its approach. There are exceptions, like the curious email sent by new transportation secretary Lynn Peterson to DOT staff, congratulating workers for their fine efforts amid the bridge disaster while insisting that DOT will stay the course on everything. “We will remain sensitive to all the economic impacts, both to local communities and those across our borders,” she wrote. “We will create both near- and long-term solutions, including increased rail transit and passenger rail service, and we will carefully create a strategy that presents minimal, if any impacts to habitat and wildlife.”

State Republican Chairman Kirby Wilbur.

State Republican Chairman Kirby Wilbur.

But a better example of the sort of rethinking that has taken place in recent days is contained in a press release from Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party. Wilbur chides the governor and the Democrats in the House for a transportation package “that prioritizes stormwater runoff over the lives of Washingtonians,” and urges them “to finally get serious about a transportation plan.”

Take it as a sign that people are interested in negotiating, Wilbur tells Washington State Wire. “It may be that it is in front of everybody because of what happened,” he says. “It has replaced other things as a topic of conversation among those who are in state politics.”

Reform Effort Renewed

State Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.

State Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.

The new message from Republicans? A reprioritzation of spending, accompanied by transportation reform. And in transportation, generally the least partisan of the issues considered by the Legislature, there appears to be willingness to deal. Earlier this year, after a widely publicized embarrassment on the state Department of Transportation’s 520 bridge project – leaky pontoons will cost somewhere around $100 million to repair – House Republicans advanced a package of bills that aim to reform the management of transportation projects. Some of those proposals were doomed from the start, as might be expected in a statehouse where Democrats control the House and the governor’s mansion. Bills to limit joint and several liability and restrict prevailing wage rules tromp on the trial lawyers and labor unions, big-spending supporters of Democratic campaigns. But some of the more politically palatable proposals are due to be revived in a comprehensive reform package, sponsored by Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, and supported by transportation chair Clibborn.

The new bill will incorporate five measures heard earlier in the session – a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, requiring that cost-benefit analyses be done to “right-size” transportation projects (HB 1988), an O’Ban bill (HB 1986) requiring the reporting of transportation-project errors, and two measures from state Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, encouraging public-private partnerships (HB 1979) and streamlining permitting processes for quicker decisions (HB 1978). The reform bill also will include Clibborn’s HB 1957, which would require approval by the Office of Financial Management for transportation-project design changes.

Zeiger is a rare Republican who is willing to declare himself in favor of the transportation package, because of Highway 167 funding. He says the bridge disaster has called attention to the “non-sexy” element of transportation funding – road and bridge repair and maintenance. “I think most Republicans will continue to be steadfastly opposed to any new revenues, but I think that it does increase the urgency of our reforms,” he says. “We need to get a whole heck of a lot more out of our existing gas-tax dollars than we are getting, and that is absolutely indisputable. We need to invest in freight mobility and key megaprojects like Highway 167. We can’t step back on that, and you are not going to hear most Republicans talking about that, but the importance of getting more out of our existing gas tax dollars is evident I think to everyone now.”

New Proposal Afoot?

Duke Schaub of the Associated General Contractors.

Duke Schaub of the Associated General Contractors.

On the tax proposal there is plenty of dickering ahead. If some rearrangement of spending priorities is what it takes to pass a tax package, Clibborn says she is open to it. But she is still pressing for the Columbia River Crossing and an up-or-down vote in the Legislature. Over in the Senate, Transportation co-chair Curtis King, R-Yakima, says neither are acceptable to the Majority Caucus. Lawmakers might allocate more money for existing roads and bridges, King says, but none of the big sticking points have changed. He says there is a recognition, though, that if a new transportation proposal emerges, it needs to happen fast – eventually the current special session has to come to an end.

Duke Schaub, lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors, says he has noticed a shift in the breeze ever since the bridge fell. Whatever the cause, its failure has called attention to the significance of the state’s existing highway network, and it has reopened debate. “We are hopeful now that this is going to at least stimulate much more discussion about how the dollars are being spent and the kinds of investments that the state should be making, way beyond the megaprojects. We know they have got to be finished, but there are huge preservation needs in roads and bridges and streets out there that are not going to be met by this revenue package as currently constituted.”

The big thing is that now people are talking, he says. “It strikes me now that people are much more interested in extending the conversation. I was not convinced that people were interested in having a conversation earlier.”

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