Residents speak out on transportation issues

Lawmakers hear them weigh in on state proposals, against tax hike

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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photoA car crosses over state Highway 500 on St. Johns Boulevard on Monday. A $48 million project completed this year elevated St. Johns over Highway 500.

(/The Columbian)

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As Washington lawmakers gear up once again to consider a transportation package in Olympia, a group of them listened on Monday to what Southwest Washington residents had to say about their transportation needs, and a potential gas tax increase.

Lawmakers adjourned this year without passing a transportation revenue package that would have raised about $10 billion in new revenue by imposing new fees and a 10.5-cent tax increase on each gallon of gas. The new money would have paid for a number of projects across the state, including the controversial Columbia River Crossing project.

About 200 people filled the room Monday evening at the Washington State Department of Transportation's regional office in Vancouver, asking the panel of legislators to either oppose the CRC and light rail, or to support it, to keep bicyclists in mind as they're working on a package, and to bolster the public's trust in WSDOT.

They also sounded off on some of the cost-saving transportation reforms lawmakers will soon consider, including changes to the state's prevailing wage laws, which set the pay rates for highway workers.

Chris Clifford stepped up to the microphone Monday to express his frustration with how WSDOT has spent its money in the past, noting public engineering blunders.

"They have too much," Clifford said during his allotted two minutes of speaking time. "They don't have a money problem, they have a spending problem."

He closed with: "Say no to an increase," prompting one of the largest rounds of applause from the audience of the night.

Earlier in the day, state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said it's likely the transportation revenue package still will include a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. He said he believes there are many Washingtonians who would be more likely to support a gas tax if they believed the state was doing all it could to reduce transportation costs.

The Senate's majority caucus, comprised of 23 Republicans and two fiscally conservative Democrats, has proposed a series of transportation reforms. They want the state to streamline environmental permits for transportation projects, to stop collecting tolls once a project is complete (unless maintenance on that project is needed), to require WSDOT to report engineering errors, and to partner with private companies on public projects.

"We've got to change the way we do business before we start looking at charging the citizens of the state of Washington additional gas taxes and passenger weight fees and all these other things," King said.

WSDOT's Southwest Washington region includes 2,387 lane miles and 517 bridges. That existing infrastructure requires preservation and maintenance, and yet just one-thirteenth of preservation needs are being met in Southwest Washington, the region's WSDOT administrator, Don Wagner, told the audience.

Because not all maintenance needs can be met, "this is what you're going to be seeing more of," Wagner said, pointing to a photo of pothole patches on a road.

Monday evening's meeting also drew a number of highway workers who spoke kindly of their apprenticeship programs, and asked that they not be cut. They also expressed their opposition to tinkering with the state's prevailing wage laws as a way to save the state money.

"I don't understand why, when people want to cut costs, they always look at the workers," said Shannon Walker, president of the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council. Walker added that she hopes legislators don't cut workers' family wages, retirement and other benefits or hire nonunion and out-of-state workers to build Washington roads.

Representatives from cities around the county showed up too, making sure to drop the names of transportation projects in their areas: a new interchange near the Clark County Fairgrounds at Northeast 179th Street at Interstate 5, reducing congestion in Woodland, and improving state Highway 501 to the Port of Vancouver were just a few.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, and King, who co-chair the Senate Transportation Committee, hosted the forum. Also on the panel Monday were Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver; John Braun, R-Centralia; Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver; Rodney Tom, D-Medina; and Ann Rivers, R-La Center; and Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama; and Liz Pike, R-Camas.

New bridge

Earlier Monday, King and Rivers met with The Columbian's editorial board to talk about the push among legislators to pass a transportation package and reforms during the 2014 Legislature. King said that the region will likely miss out on a new bridge over the Columbia River, at least for a while, if leaders can't come to a consensus on what the new bridge should look like.

"If there isn't some type of an agreement on the CRC, it probably will not be included in that package," King said. "It's going to be several years before another package comes along, and that's probably the only way it's going to get built."

As Washington legislators discuss a transportation package, Oregon legislators are considering a way to move forward on the project, despite Washington lawmakers adjourning this year without committing its $450 million share toward a new bridge.

The scaled-down, Oregon-led plan would cost $2.7 billion. It would still build a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia with light rail and tolls, but it would not immediately include any freeway work north of state Highway 14.

Rivers said she wants to see a bridge that reduces commute times and increases freight mobility, and one that's built with an infrastructure that supports adding light rail later.

Three forums remain on the legislators' transportation tour. Those stops are in Tacoma on Wednesday, Seattle on Oct. 14 and Bellingham on Oct. 15. Residents who can't attend the forums can submit comments online.