Politics & Government

Senate votes to raise gas tax to fund long-delayed 167, bottleneck at JBLM; House vote planned Tuesday

Supporters of a four-lane highway between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma would finally get their wish if the state House follows the Senate in voting to raise the gas tax by 11.9 cents a gallon.

The Senate ratified a deal between Republican and Democratic transportation negotiators with an overwhelming 39-9 vote Monday. The House plans to vote Tuesday.

The 16-year, $16 billion plan would raise the gas tax by 7 cents Aug. 1 and another 4.9 cents July 1, 2016, to 49.4 cents, and would raise a host of fees such as those on vehicle weight.

Plans have called for state Route 167 to extend to the port for more than four decades, but funding ran out in the late 1980s. Port officials badly want a faster link to the warehouses of east Pierce and King counties and the farmland across the Cascades, but that goal has long taken a back seat to other projects.

“We dead-ended in a cornfield in 1989,” said Sean Eagan, a lobbyist for the port. “We’re getting ready to finish what we started.”

More than $1.5 billion of the new spending would be split between SR 167 and a new leg of SR 509 from Sea-Tac Airport to Interstate 5.

The two extension projects would be treated as one and wouldn’t start construction until 2019, pushing completion off until as late as 2031.

The plan calls for tapping local funding sources and tolling the new highways to help raise the full $1.9 billion price tag for the so-called “Puget Sound Gateway,” but lawmakers scrapped plans to also toll carpool lanes on I-5.

The gateway is widely popular in the Legislature, although some opponents of highway expansion have sought to make it the poster child for a transportation package they say will promote pollution and sprawl. Bruce Speight, executive director of the Washington Public Interest Research Group, noted the price tag for the gateway alone exceeds what would be spent fixing and preserving roads and bridges.

“We have all these repair needs but we’re shoveling massive amounts of money into all these expansion projects with very little evidence they’ll actually benefit us in any way,” Speight said.

Another project funded in the deal would widen a stretch of I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, at a cost of nearly $500 million.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn and a transportation negotiator, said traffic problems there have become more and more clear with time.

“The more times that legislators have to drive to Olympia in April, May and June through JBLM, maybe there’s more bipartisan recognition that it’s a choking point that our economy and families can't afford,” Fain said.

Construction on that project could run from 2017 to 2023.

Pierce County business and government leaders were lobbying their local lawmakers. Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson wrote a letter Tuesday urging Reps. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, and Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, to support the measure in the House. The letter also went to a Senate supporter, Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma.

“The Legislature’s action on this proposal will either be a huge positive or a huge negative when JBLM downsizing and realignment decisions are made,” Anderson wrote. The Pentagon is considering how many jobs to cut at JBLM to comply with congressional budget cuts.

Lawmakers would devote another $72 million to the interchange of I-5 and Marvin Road in Lacey, and $58 million to a bypass of SR 510 through Yelm.

The plan delays the day the Tacoma Narrows bridge built in 2007 has to start repaying sales tax on its construction another 13 years, to 2031, a move that could hold down tolls for a time.

The deal allows Sound Transit to ask voters for $15 billion in taxes to expand light rail, although it would also demand the agency pay more than $500 million to the state in a series of transfers that would ultimately cover the state transportation fund’s sales-tax expenses.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the payment would increase its costs by 1 to 2 percent but the proposed taxes would still be enough to complete the agency’s top priorities, including a north-south line from Everett to Tacoma.

“It will definitely get to the (Tacoma) Dome,” said Andrew Austin, who advocates for mass transit as policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, “and I think the Tacoma board members have wanted to push the conversation to see if getting to the (Tacoma) Mall would be doable.”

Some House members from both parties are likely to vote against the plan.

“It’s too big of a tax increase and a fee increase,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama, House Republicans’ lead negotiator on transportation. “We really need to work on bringing costs down. I just don’t think we did as much for the taxpayers as we could do, as we should do, and as we need to do.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t happy about a concession by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee that helped pave the way for the deal and would make it more difficult for governors to regulate the greenhouse-gas emissions of fuel.

For them, the restriction adds to the sting of the Legislature’s rejection of Inslee’s cap-and-trade plan to reduce emissions. “This was not a session where we made progress on climate change,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien and chairman of the Environment Committee.

Fitzgibbon planned to vote against the package, but Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said Monday that other Democrats were growing more comfortable as they learned about it. She predicted the House would approve the deal.