Washington House Republicans seek transportation reforms

In exchange, it would be more willing to support broad funding package

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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State House Republicans say they would be more willing to support a broad transportation funding package if the Legislature passes Republican government reforms they say will boost the economy, increase government accountability and save transportation dollars.

A "fix it before you fund it" plan, released Thursday, identifies a set of six House Bills, including one that requires the state's department of transportation to explain itself if it makes transportation engineering mistakes that cost taxpayers more than $500,000.

The Republican's plan is a counterpoint to the nearly $10 billion transportation funding package proposed earlier this legislative session by House Democrats. That package, which would increase gas taxes, marks money for several transportation projects across the state, including $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing.

The $3.4 billion CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, update nearby freeway interchanges and extend light rail from Portland to Vancouver. The megaproject drew criticism last year when the U.S. Coast Guard said the span, which allowed for 95 feet of clearance for river traffic, was too low.

Updating the bridge design to include 116 feet of clearance for river traffic adds an estimated $30 million to the project.

While advocating for their reforms package, House Republicans pointed to other transportation blunders, including engineering problems with the State Route 520 Bridge in Seattle. Their proposed bill would require the transportation department to submit a report to the Legislature explaining how each pricey mistake happened, who's to blame, how the problem will be avoided in the future, and what disciplinary steps were taken to address the problem.

"This debate needs to begin with accountability and taxpayer protections -- not project lists to entice votes in the Legislature," Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden and a Transportation Committee member, said Thursday in a statement. "We're not going to throw more money at a broken system."

Additionally, two bills in the Republicans' package address the state's Growth Management Act, which was created to balance development in the state with urban planning and environmental protection goals.

One of those bills, introduced this session by state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, would create a 60-day deadline for state agencies to process permits. If the deadline is missed, then the permit is automatically granted, according to the bill.

The other bill would suspend the Growth Management Act in counties with high unemployment numbers as a way to encourage economic growth. Counties would qualify if their unemployment rate is more than 7 percent for three consecutive months.

The Republicans' package also would limit bond terms for transportation projects to 15 years, which would save money in bond interest. Another bill in the package would exempt state transportation projects from state and local sales and use taxes, and the final bill would limit the amount of money a plaintiff could win in a lawsuit against the department of transportation.

Referencing the House Democrats' transportation package, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said, his constituents cannot afford a state gas tax increase.

"These folks need jobs, or better-paying ones, and the assurance their state government is working for them -- not against them," Orcutt said in a statement. "We need to see how we can make our gas tax dollars go further before we reach further into taxpayers' pockets."

CRC project planners say Washington and Oregon each must dedicate money for the project this year in order to keep the CRC on track. The Oregon Legislature has approved $450 million this year, contingent on Washington also dedicating money to the project.

The Washington Legislature's session is scheduled to conclude on April 28.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com