June 25, 2021

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U.S. 2 trestle rebuild part of Senate transportation package

OLYMPIA — After weeks of discussing a multi-billion dollar transportation package in mostly abstract terms, it got real Monday.

The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on legislation underlying a 16-year, $17.8 billion undertaking which would rebuild the U.S. 2 trestle in Snohomish County, pay Washington’s share of a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River, remove state-owned culverts, construct new state ferries and bolster public transit systems.

Specifically, in Snohomish County, there’s $1.8 billion to replace the aging westbound span of the U.S. 2 trestle between Lake Stevens and Everett, $90 million to widen a three-mile stretch of Highway 522 between Monroe and Maltby, $58.5 million to complete the Monroe bypass and $58.2 million for widening of Highway 9 north of Clearview.

But with less than two weeks remaining in the regular session, its passage is far from guaranteed. A special session might be required.

“I think we can get it done,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the committee chairman and chief architect of the plan. “I believe we can craft a bill that all of Washington can benefit from.”

Supporters hope so too.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we can get a transportation package this session, but it’s very late and the public has yet to be fully engaged,” said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters and Washington Environmental Council. “Each passing day makes it more difficult to get it done.”

To fund this endeavor, Hobbs drew from a menagerie of sources.

Primarily it counts on $5.1 billion from a proposed carbon emission cap-and-trade program and $5.2 billion from a 9.8-cent increase in the gas tax.

Smaller sums are pencilled in from 28 other taxes and fees. There’s a statewide assessment on new construction, a hike in sales tax on auto parts and a boost to the rental car tax. Also on the list is a new per trip fee on food delivery and ride-share services such as DoorDash and Uber and increases in weight fees, license plate charges and the excise tax on boats 16-foot and larger.

This list — which he cribbed together with other senators on the committee — also calls for diverting sales tax paid on new hybrid and electric vehicles away from the state’s general fund and into this package starting in 2026.

At a hearing Monday, opposition emerged to several of the fees. Several individuals with physical challenges also criticized the plan for not making enough investments in programs and services for those who cannot or do not drive.

“We are your young, old, disabled and low-income constituents. And we are demanding that you start to listen,” said Anna Zivarts of the Disability Mobility Initiative. “We will continue to fight for a transportation system that meets our basic needs.”

And environmentalists voiced concern that money generated from the cap-and-trade program is getting spent on roads rather than reducing carbon emissions.

Traisman estimated $1.3 billion of carbon revenue is earmarked for projects without a clear nexus for curbing air pollution.

Hobbs said late Monday he’s making tweaks on sources of revenues and expenditures. Changes should be ready for review when the Senate panel meets Wednesday to vote on the package.

Meanwhile, politics surrounding this package are huge.

It is, for now, inextricably linked with two climate-change bills sought by Gov. Jay Inslee — one targeting pollution from industries through a carbon emission cap-and-trade program and the other targeting tailpipe emissions through a low carbon fuel standard. Both bills contain language making them contingent on approval of a transportation revenue package.

The sponsor of the low carbon fuel standard, House Bill 1091, dislikes the linkage which was inserted by the Democrat-led Senate.

“I think it’s bad practice to make an entire bill contingent on passage of another bill,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien. “The bill as passed by the Senate is not a bill that could be implemented successfully.”

Five Democratic senators figured he might feel that way. They sent Fitzgibbon a letter Saturday laying out “the Senate changes to the legislation that must stay in the final bill to earn our support.” One of those is maintaining the link with the transportation package.

Fitzgibbon said he “wasn’t thrilled about the letter” but hopeful the two chambers can find ways to assure the goals laid out in the letter are met, including finding revenue for transportation.

“I’d love to see a transportation package move. I don’t see a transportation package really moving right now,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re on the verge of that happening right now.”

In the meantime, the House Transportation Committee is waiting for receipt of Hobbs’ legislation. That might not happen before the weekend, giving the chair, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, little time to get it passed in his chamber.

“This one looks like it’s got a lot of stops left,” Fey said. “It’ll be a challenge but not an impossibility.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: [email protected] | @dospueblos