Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a $16 billion transportation package into law at a ceremony at the University of Washington’s Conibear Shellhouse, with scenic Lake Washington as the backdrop.
A few hours before the signing ceremony, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, sent out a media release denouncing the package as a “raw deal for Clark County taxpayers and commuters.”
Benton, vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, would be in Seattle, a press release from his office said, to voice his opposition as the governor signed the package.
Indeed, the publicity photos show the senator was there.
“Didn’t say anything,” the governor’s spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Just smiled for the photos.”
For the first time since 2005, the state Legislature passed a transportation package to finance major road projects throughout the state. It carves out an approximate $600 million for the Southwest Washington region and promises millions to overhaul Clark County’s oldest interchange and build a railroad overpass in Ridgefield.
Some hailed the package as a compromise that will benefit the entire state. Others blasted it, saying Clark County drivers will be footing the bill to fund projects in other parts of the state. What is clear is, transportation has become one of the most divisive political issues in Southwest Washington. It’s a source of partisan bickering and gamesmanship. Some Southwest Washington lawmakers have earned a reputation for sending mixed messages. And the result, some believe, is that the region doesn’t benefit as much as it could when money is being doled out.
“Systemically, if we were working together, all the local governments would prioritize and reach agreement … And all the legislators would reach an agreement and prioritize at the state level. And it should work that way,” said Betty Sue Morris, a former state lawmaker and Clark County commissioner.
Instead, the delegation representing Southwest Washington in Olympia has a reputation for not always “being able to come together,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said recently.
It wasn’t always that way.
“Transportation was probably the first issue or the biggest issue where you had the most collaboration,” said former Democratic Sen. Al Bauer, who represented the region in Olympia for three decades.
The tense relationship between Benton and his fellow Republican state senator representing the region, Ann Rivers, has been well-documented.
The two shared a series of unprofessional public arguments that were deemed a violation of Senate rules.
There is one area where they agree: Clark County didn’t get its fair share of the $16 billion.
“Personal relationships transcend tough decisions,” Benton said at a recent legislative luncheon.
“There were legislators in King County, because they stuck together as a team, they got over a billion dollars … They stuck together, across party lines, Democrat and Republican … And if we could do that, we would do better in a transportation situation,” Benton said.
Rivers followed him to the podium.
“On this, Don and I agree: Southwest Washington did not do well. And you know what? Every one of us (legislators) owns that we didn’t do well,” she said. “Prior to this, Southwest Washington received 95 percent of its dollars back in our region. We can’t say the same about this package. For me personally, it was really emotional, because for those who know me, you know I don’t like tax increases.”
Rivers said she believes the legislative district she represents fared well, but the region could have done better.
“People didn’t get to the (negotiating) table,” Rivers said. “I was the only one at the table. That’s why my district did well.” (About $90 million is set aside for four major projects in Rivers’ 18th District.)
The package does fund some regional priorities that were identified early in the process.
Jaime Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, gives credit to some regional business leaders who worked to formalize a priority list.
“When these packages are being put together, both the legislative negotiations as well as the governor lean on local input,” Smith said. “It’s a locally driven process … Those are the folks that know best. They know what they need.”
Vying for transportation dollars can be a competitive sport in Olympia. When the unified voice starts to fracture, it becomes a struggle for decision-makers to receive the right message.
The City of Vancouver pushed for, and ultimately received, $98.7 million to rebuild the interchange at Interstate 5 and Mill Plain Boulevard, while Clark County Commissioner David Madore tried to undermine the project because of his concern it was tied to the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing.
“The real issue here materialized over the bridge, and we haven’t gotten over that,” Morris said.
Gov. Jay Inslee praised the passage of the transportation package, which will raise the gas tax by 11.9 cents per gallon in two steps.
After failing to pass a transportation package in previous years, the governor recently likened its passage to “if not a Super Bowl championship, at least a good Mariners game.”
In addition to the $98.7 million to rebuild the interchange at Interstate 5 and Mill Plain Boulevard, it included $50 million to replace the antiquated Northeast 179th Street interchange on Interstate 5 and $25 million for improvements to the Camas Slough Bridge along state Highway 14. There’s money included to widen Main Street/state Highway 502 in Battle Ground and millions to improve state Highway 501 (Mill Plain Boulevard) from Interstate 5 to the Port of Vancouver.
Morris believes leaders have to let the animosity that continues to swirl around the failed Columbia River Crossing project die.
Lawmakers “all need to get in a room with someone really good at conflict resolution and work through it,” she sad.
“Because not getting along and blaming the other side of the aisle … is no excuse for not solving a problem,” Morris said.