When pondering the latest proposal for a transportation package to be discussed in the state Senate, we trust that Rep. Jim Moeller’s view from the other side of the Capitol is clear. “It won’t go anywhere, not in the House,” said the state representative, a Democrat from Vancouver. “Not until they pass it out of the Senate.” In other words, this transportation package has a long journey ahead — a committee, the full Senate, the House, then the governor. We hope it remains that way.
Senate leaders have put forth an idea that would raise the state gas tax — already the second-highest in the nation — by 11.5 cents a gallon, phased in over three years. The idea is to raise $12.4 billion for transportation projects throughout the state, and by throughout the state we mean mostly the Puget Sound area. That is the way transportation traditionally has worked in this state. When Seattle or Tacoma requires a megaconstruction project such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct or a new floating bridge across Lake Washington, the call goes out to all corners of the state for donations disguised as gas taxes.
In 2003, the Legislature enacted a “nickel” funding package that raised the gas tax 5 cents a gallon, and more than half of that revenue went to congestion-relief projects in the Puget Sound area. Then, in 2005, the Legislature added a 9.5-cent tax to be phased in over four years. The bulk of expenditures from that increase: $2 billion for the Alaskan Way Viaduct project in Seattle; $551 million for the I-90 corridor east of Seattle; and $500 million for the floating Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington, linking Seattle with Bellevue. The Alaskan Way project, by the way, has been stalled for months as the tunnel-boring machine has broken down; and the Highway 520 bridge has been beset by cost overruns and delays caused, in part, by poorly designed pontoons.
The latest proposal would earmark about $6.5 billion for road projects in the state, with the remainder going toward road maintenance, the state ferry system, rail projects, the Washington State Patrol, etc. Of that $6.5 billion, about $46 million would be directed to projects in Clark County, including $30 million for widening Interstate 205 through Vancouver. That total works out to 0.7 percent coming to the fifth most populous county in the state, a county that contains about 6.3 percent of Washington’s population.
This is not to suggest that transportation dollars should be doled out by a quota system. Sometimes the need is greater in a particular area, regardless of population, and sometimes a project in one part of the state also benefits residents elsewhere. Certainly, the Puget Sound region is the lead engine that powers the state’s economy.
But Clark County long has been a donor county when it comes to transportation money and, although the Legislature decided otherwise last year, there is a pressing transportation need in the form of the Interstate 5 Bridge. If this area had received a fair return on its gas tax investments over the past decade, we wouldn’t have room to complain in this instance. That hasn’t been the case.
Odds are that the most recent proposal will not receive the necessary support in the Senate. Then, the odds are that it wouldn’t pass muster in the House. In other words, there’s a slim chance the plan eventually will be sent to the governor. But there’s zero chance that the proposal, as currently constructed, is fair to Clark County.