Saturday, December 4, 2021
Dec. 4, 2021

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Washington lawmakers keep new highways on cruise control

I-5 Bridge replacement among projects that will have to wait


OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers entered the 2021 session exploring proposals to erect new bridges, subsidize electric cars and collect fuel taxes as high as $1 per gallon.

Instead, their awkward virtual session ended on cruise control, as members simply renewed construction money for freeway expansions planned years ago. These include one new lane each direction of clogged Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Renton, which hasn’t been widened since 1984.

They kept money flowing to replace road culverts that block fish streams, as mandated by federal courts.

But thanks to federal aid, the state’s bipartisan two-year transportation budget of $11.8 billion, passed last weekend, does provide cash to tackle other lingering problems.

The jumbo state ferry Wenatchee and one other will be converted to run on battery power, so they can recharge in either Seattle or Bainbridge between trips. And the budget funds a new 144-car ferry that runs off electric batteries with supplementary diesel generators, for flexible use anywhere in Puget Sound, said ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling.

The 2021-23 budget adds $20 million to walk, bike, school zone and transit grants, and $4 million to increase construction apprenticeships.

And lawmakers joined Gov. Jay Inslee to spend $849 million in 2021-23 on major repairs to preserve Washington’s crumbling state roads. That’s more than twice the previous level, yet half of what the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says it needs.

The two-year budget holds combined state and federal gasoline taxes at 67.8 cents per gallon. It includes $1 billion in federal relief money to fund stream projects and backfill tax losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the state must wait another year or longer to finance more bridge megaprojects — a new and potentially larger Interstate 5 Columbia River crossing to replace old drawspans shared with Oregon and a westbound Highway 2 trestle from Lake Stevens to Everett.

“This budget only keeps the lights on, and Washingtonians expect and need more than a transportation budget that merely keeps the lights on,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, in a statement Saturday.

Nonetheless, WSDOT will continue the current road-building funded by Connecting Washington, the gas tax boost of 2015-16. Some routes, like a big Highway 509 connecting Green River Valley with the Port of Tacoma, were proposed many years ago.

The climate-action group 350 Seattle pleaded with lawmakers to avoid further highway widenings, an argument likely to resume in 2022.

Anna Zivarts, director of Disability Mobility Initiative, declared, “better no transportation package than a package that leaves us behind again.”

In the mostly virtual 2021 session, people statewide testified by Zoom that lawmakers would be shortchanging 25% of Washingtonians without cars if they passed the 16-year Senate program of $18 billion or so. More sidewalks and transit are needed, Zivarts said.

“We shifted the narrative,” she said Monday. “For the first time, the transportation committees heard from people who don’t drive — a lot of us.”

Lawmakers did pass two bills aimed at increasing fossil-fuel prices and reducing carbon pollution — but they don’t take effect unless members pass a transportation package of at least 5 cents per gallon, that also might tack on as many as 33 other fees.

Senate Bill 5126, the “cap-and-trade” system, collects carbon fees called credits from companies that emit greenhouse gases, while statewide emission limits decrease every year. Hobbs is counting on 70% of future carbon-fee revenue, or $5.2 billion, for his transportation package, that combines road projects with fish culverts, walk-bike and electrification projects.

Legislators also passed the low-carbon fuels standard, House Bill 1091, that requires a gradual shift to cleaner ingredients, such as plant-based biodiesel.

Vlad Gutman-Britten, state director of Climate Solutions, calls the two carbon bills “monumental” even though they rely on a 2022 transportation bill to go into effect. State agencies can begin now to write rules and spending plans, he said, to prepare for the scheduled Jan. 1, 2023, startup. “So we’re not losing any time.”

Lawmakers didn’t forget about local history. Tucked inside their two-year budget is a $60,000 earmark to preserve and commemorate ruins of the never-finished R.H Thomson Expressway, a route from Montlake to Rainier Valley canceled in 1972 by citizen resistance.