The most remarkable thing about the proposed state transportation package announced last week is that it exists.
This was going to be a tough session for road improvements, given the Legislature’s overriding need to find more school money to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. But the Senate looks as if it may be able to handle the two jobs – both of them fraught with political complexities – at the same time.
The new $15 billion package, which would add 11.7 cents a gallon to the gas tax, is impressively bipartisan. It’s the product of negotiation among Republican Curtis King, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, Republican Joe Fain of Auburn, and Democrats Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Marko Liias of Mukilteo.
This harks back to the golden age when conservatives and liberals didn’t routinely battle each other over highways and buses. Getting people to jobs and goods to markets makes no sense as a partisan issue. Unfortunately, that healthy old consensus was fractured on both left and right by anti-tax, anti-transit and anti-highway politics.
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The proposal released last week tries to bridge those divides.
It would invest billions in uncorking transportation chokepoints. The worst of these are the uncompleted gaps in state Routes 167 and 509, which threaten the state economy by throttling freight movement in and out of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Roughly $1.9 billion would finally complete those highways and improve interchanges on Interstate 5, getting trucks off the freeway, easing commutes, and greasing the shipment of freight through the Kent Valley.
Bottlenecks would be widened on I-405, Snoqualmie Pass, the North Spokane Freeway and the bumper-to-bumper stretch of I-5 that runs past Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge’s link to Seattle would be completed.
Transit projects, ferries, salmon passages and a slew of local road improvements would also be funded. Sound Transit would be authorized to ask voters to finance a third phase of mass transit expansion to the tune of $9 billion – though the system may need as much as $15 billion.
This follows the broad outlines of recent transportation packages. The endorsement of four key Republican and Democratic senators suggests that the politics are doable even with McCleary hanging over the Legislature’s head.
The plan will face the usual tired arguments from right and left.
Yes, it involves taxes. But freeways aren’t free, and taxes on gas and motor vehicles are essentially user fees – you get what you pay for. Hours stuck in traffic jams tend to be a lot more expensive.
Yes, it would expand transit capacity. But robust transit systems are needed to make heavily populated cities work. Seattleites will be paying these taxes, too.
Yes, it would buy highway lanes. But even if you loathe the internal combustion engine, those lanes are needed for buses, vanpools and coming generations of electric cars. Relatively few people can bicycle or walk to work. Some people can’t walk, period.
And – oh, yes – the schools need billions, and aren’t they a higher priority?
Indeed they are. But this Legislature can adopt a transportation package and also take the next big step toward full funding for education.
Over the long term, in fact, efficient roads and transit are part of educational funding: They grow the economy, and a growing economy pumps more revenue into the schools. Education and transportation make a pair of issues that cries out for bipartisan agreement.