A $15 billion transportation bill passed last week by the state Senate included plenty of political intrigue and more than a modicum of compromise, but it remains a difficult sell for Southwest Washington.
Registering on the intrigue meter was the fact that diametrically opposed local Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, voted against it — albeit for somewhat different reasons. Benton opposed raising the state gas tax by 11.7 cents per gallon over the next three years because the accompanying list of projects would not deliver enough pork to Southwest Washington: “It’s woefully short for what our needs are in Clark County.” Cleveland opposed the plan because it does not include the revival of a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge: “It is difficult for me to ask the people of my district to pay a higher gas tax and additional fees without including a plan for the next steps in replacing the lifeline in and out of my community.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, voted for the proposal, delivering a cryptic message about assurances that additional Clark County projects will be added to the list. To summarize: Rivers, who helped lead the legislative fight against a Columbia River Crossing that would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to her district, now approves of a plan to bring precious little return to Clark County. Our heads are still spinning over that lack of logic.
But while the Senate has started the ball rolling and has pushed it toward the House of Representatives, the compromise evident in the proposal is noteworthy in modern political theater. Many Republicans approved the anathema of a tax increase, rightly recognizing the state’s dire need for infrastructure investment. Many Democrats swallowed hard and voted for a plan that includes some labor and sales-tax reforms, in addition to what stands for now as the bill’s “poison pill.”
It is in that pill that the proposal goes too far, dictating that if a low-carbon fuel standard is adopted during the 16-year life of the bill, millions of dollars would be stripped from public transportation and multimodal projects and be transferred to highway projects. Such compromise is necessary for a $15 billion package to garner bipartisan support — the Senate passed the proposal 27-22 — but tying the hands of future legislators and future governors until the 2030s is extreme. Gov. Jay Inslee has floated the idea of strict emission standards, fully realizing that he is merely planting a seed for future cultivation. “I’m a person who believes sometimes new ideas are good ones,” he told The Columbian in December, admitting that such concepts can take time to garner support.
Considering that future transportation needs and future carbon technology are difficult to predict, the Legislature would be foolish to effectively wrap a 16-year moratorium around the transportation bill. Not that the proposal has been etched in stone; as Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, noted, “negotiations really begin” now as the package moves to the House. Regardless of the tenor of those negotiations, it is clear that the transportation bill will be woefully unfair to Clark County. Of the $15 billion, about $160 million is earmarked for this part of the state, along with $6 million for transit and rail upgrades. In other words, a county that in recent years has generated 5.4 percent of the state’s transportation funds would receive 1.1 percent of the revenue from a statewide gas tax.
Despite vague assurances from Rivers, the plan would be grossly unfair to Clark County and should be opposed by local lawmakers.