Benton: Transportation? Senators want to hear from you

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Had Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrats who control the House of Representatives gotten their way in late June, Washington's share of the gas tax would have jumped 6 cents per gallon when August arrived, with a hike of another 41/2 cents to come next July.

Tax increases are unpopular to begin with; this one, however, would have come just two days after the state Department of Transportation disclosed that its latest high-profile blunder, related to replacing the state Highway 520 bridge in King County, would cost taxpayers at least $71 million. Can you imagine how families and employers in our state would have felt about shelling out more at the pump, right after learning they'd have to foot that bill?

The proposed gas-tax hike would have paid for transportation projects not included in the new two-year transportation budget I helped to craft as vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Among the projects tied to this additional package: the controversial Columbia River Crossing between Clark County and Portland.

Even if the CRC hadn't been included, I wouldn't have supported raising the gas tax. Why should I when, as the example of the SR 520 design error shows, there's no reason to think state government would be more responsible and efficient with new gas-tax dollars than it has with the revenue already being collected?

As it turned out, I and my fellow Senate Majority Coalition Caucus members weren't the primary roadblock to the gas-tax increase. House Democrats ran their package into the ditch themselves by choosing to leave the Capitol without voting on whether to sell the bonds that literally finance the projects.

So what now? Certainly our state would benefit from a larger investment in its transportation infrastructure. However, we need to fix the system that builds, maintains and operates our transportation infrastructure before pumping more money into that system. That means, as Inslee put it in his January inaugural speech, it's time to "rethink how we do the business of transportation in our state."

There's also little question that any new transportation-investment package will end up going before the people, one way or another. For that reason, members of our Senate majority will soon do something the governor and House Democrats hadn't: go around our state and talk with the people first, so we have a firm sense of what they expect from Washington's transportation system and how they'd prefer to provide for it.

Kick-start conversation

The time for such candid discussions is now, so we can have a viable transportation-investment package ready for consideration when the Legislature meets next. That's why I and other leaders of our bipartisan Senate coalition are planning to host public meetings statewide -- hopefully with state Department of Transportation officials also attending. One of those will be in Vancouver; it's tentatively set for Sept. 24.

To kick-start these conversations, we'll bring along a list of 10 reforms that could save many millions of dollars without hampering the transportation projects that are underway or in waiting.

The CRC will no doubt figure into the Vancouver conversation. However, while no one is satisfied with how the CRC situation turned out — including me — I don't foresee a quick solution. As long as Oregon is dead set on using a new crossing to extend its financially troubled light-rail system across the Columbia, and unwilling to fully recognize the importance of reducing traffic congestion and protecting shipping upriver, how can any discussion move forward?

The Legislature has voted twice in the past 10 years to raise the gas tax. Both times I worked to hitch some taxpayer protections to those increases, to no avail. I'm looking forward to hearing what the people have to say to us now about how to get the most for their dollars, given that another proposed gas-tax hike is likely on the horizon. Perhaps this time lawmakers will listen.


Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, represents the 17th Legislative District. He is vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and deputy leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.