State's failure a break for county?

Inability of lawmakers to pass transportation package gives local delegation another shot

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When a proposed transportation revenue package again flamed out in the Washington Legislature this year, the predictable finger pointing began.

Gov. Jay Inslee blamed Senate Republicans. Senate Republicans decried the governor's "blatant and false accusations."

Clark County may have breathed a sigh of relief.

The $12.3 billion version of the plan floated in February included just $46 million for a handful of projects in the county. Had something close to it passed, Clark County residents would have been stuck paying higher gas taxes and seeing virtually all of that money funneled elsewhere. A long list of projects would have landed mostly in other parts of the state.

Legislative leaders say they'll make another run at a broad transportation deal by next year. Whether Clark County fares better the next time may hinge on how effectively its legislative delegation fights — and fights together — for the region's interests.

"We're either going to be a part of that parade, or we're going to be on the curb, watching it go by," lobbyist Mark Brown told the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council this month.

Brown, who represents the cities of Vancouver, Ridgefield and Battle Ground in Olympia, noted large revenue packages and the gas tax increases that fund them don't come around often. The last two, in 2003 and 2005, are still financing major road work in Clark County and elsewhere.

Local lawmakers will have to convey a unified message in Olympia if they hope to get as much or more out of the next one, Brown said. In the past, that's meant members of both parties pushing for projects in exchange for "yes" votes, he said.

"We all need to regroup and figure out how to protect our interests," Brown said. "No votes are not the answer."

The CRC 'vacuum'

Complicating the situation this time around is the demise of the Columbia River Crossing, which has deeply divided local leaders for the better part of a decade. Even as the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement shuts down, it remains a defining issue in Clark County.

An earlier version of the transportation package passed by House Democrats in 2013 included $450 million for the CRC — and nothing else for the county. But the project's inclusion was a key reason that the entire package ultimately failed last year.

By the time a new version of the package emerged from the Senate this year, the CRC was off the table. But its removal left a $450 million hole that had been marked for Clark County, and the few local projects tossed in amounted to far less than that. Southwest Washington was largely left behind as leaders filled the void and sent most of that money elsewhere.

"It was a vacuum," said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. "For so long, all the people up there heard was CRC, CRC, CRC."

Meanwhile, there were other regional projects looking for funding. In December, a group of Southwest Washington legislators sent a letter to Inslee detailing a long list of possibilities in the 49th, 17th, 18th and 19th legislative districts. Among those were a proposed widening of state Highway 14 between Interstate 205 and Southeast 164th Avenue, new interchanges connecting Interstate 5 with Mill Plain and Fourth Plain, improvements at 42nd and 54th avenues along state Highway 500, plus more than a dozen others.

What did make the cut in the Senate's proposal? An I-205 widening in Vancouver, a rail overpass in Ridgefield and a highway widening project in Battle Ground.

"To a person, almost everyone was disappointed with the package that was (announced) by the Senate," Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said of the local reaction. "They were shocked that there was so little for Southwest Washington."

Unified delegation?

One of the most influential voices in the transportation debate is Sen. Curtis King, who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. The Yakima Republican was one of the architects of the Senate package unveiled this year, which included a phased 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike.

King said the project list was developed partially from earlier lists, and partially from the list that House leaders had already approved. Many items had been in the works for years.

King, whose district includes a portion of east Clark County, said the end result wasn't a deliberate slight to the region.

"I wasn't trying to get even with anybody," he said. "It was just a matter of how everything came forward."

The proposal was crafted with the goal of finishing projects that had been started, and fully funding others, he said. King said he recognizes that many in Clark County feel short-changed, but noted that other parts of the state feel the same way. And giving more funding to Southwest Washington likely means taking it from somewhere else.

Moeller, Rivers and others don't buy the notion that they're a divided delegation representing Clark County in Olympia. The unified reaction to the latest transportation package showed that, Moeller said.

"As far as Southwest Washington is concerned, I think we were divided on only one issue, and that is the CRC," he said.

Leaders have "maybe two windows" to get a transportation deal done in the next year, King said. Lawmakers could convene for a special session after elections, perhaps in December. Or they could try to tackle the issue early in the 2015 session, he said. After that, budget talks and education funding are likely to dominate discourse in Olympia.

House leaders will likely put together a new transportation package without the CRC, Moeller said. King said he'll try to rectify Clark County's concerns with the Senate version in the meantime. If he hopes to get "yes" votes from local legislators, he'll have to.

"If the people in this area are going to be paying a tax, then they should be getting their money's worth," Rivers said.