Inslee: No bridge in transportation deal

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OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says he still wants to call a special session of the Legislature to pass a transportation revenue package this November, but a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River won't be part of the deal. Inslee has championed the Columbia River Crossing but said Tuesday he won't try to include the bridge in a tax plan to fund statewide road improvements, and would be content having Oregon take the lead on replacing the connection between Vancouver and Portland.

Legislative leaders will meet Oct. 29 to see if they can agree on a transportation plan, Inslee said. The governor said he will only call lawmakers back to Olympia in November if he is confident a deal is at hand.

Also Tuesday, a helicopter tour gave Inslee an aerial view of one of the state's biggest traffic choke points -- the area surrounding Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Military brass told Inslee what the base is doing to relieve gridlock, including building a new gate on the section of the base north of Interstate 5 and a road and bridge that will connect the Air Force and Army sections of the base.

Inslee said the federally funded base improvements gave him "a good argument" to pitch to state lawmakers for why they should pass a package of taxes for transportation work, including widening of I-5 alongside the base.

"You're being a good partner. Now we need the state to step up to the plate as well, and I hope that legislators do that this November," Inslee told Lewis-McChord base commander Col. Charles Hodges.

The Democrat-controlled state House in June approved a 101/2-cent gas tax increase that along with various fees would have raised more than $9 billion over a dozen years, including $175 million slated for the Lewis-McChord area and $1.4 billion for expansions of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma and of state Route 509 near Sea-Tac International Airport.

It also included more than $400 million to match Oregon's contribution to the replacement Columbia River bridge, which was one reason the funding plan faltered in the more conservative Senate.

This week, The Oregonian reported that Oregon officials might convene a special session to try and fund the bridge on their own using a combination of state and federal funds.

Inslee said Tuesday that by Washington choosing to not fund half of the bridge project, "we've removed an excuse" to not come up with a broader transportation package.

But Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads a coalition of mostly Republicans, said the Columbia River Crossing could still hold up a vote on a transportation package even if it is not explicitly included in a tax proposal.

Tom said members of his caucus oppose letting Oregon set toll rates on the bridge, as well as allowing another state to build light rail on Washington's side of the river.

"Why would we cede control to Oregon, when it's our citizens who (make up) the vast majority of traffic going between Washington and Oregon?" Tom asked Tuesday. "Does (Inslee) want to give up his governorship?"

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee, said even if the Oregon-led bridge project proceeds, the Washington State Transportation Commission — which sets tolls on Washington state highways — would have input on toll rates.

But that assurance might not be enough. State Sen. Curtis King, a Yakima Republican who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said Senate Republicans are still looking for a bridge design that excludes light rail, which he said would cost too much for local transportation agencies to operate.

Republicans also want changes in how the Department of Transportation spends money as part of any deal.

If lawmakers can find agreement, the state plan would add to federally funded efforts to handle the increased congestion spurred by the expansion of Lewis-McChord by thousands of soldiers.

Base officials say they have started construction on a new gate near Wharf Road, with plans to finish in January 2015. The large gate would allow people working on the expanding north section of the base to avoid taking I-5 to their homes in Steilacoom, University Place and Tacoma, Hodges said.

Those going south to Thurston County could also bypass the busiest part of I-5, adding to traffic through DuPont.