Lawmakers must close the deal on state transportation

Last fall, the stars seemed to be aligning for the statewide roads-and-transit package Washington desperately needs. But the stars have strayed since then, and it’s going to take some bipartisan leadership to line them up again.

The makings of a deal remain in place. Democratic and Republican leaders both seem to understand that traffic chokepoints and other transportation deficiencies in many parts of the state have begun to slowly squeeze the state’s economy.

The single biggest problem is not a chokepoint but a flat-out dead end – where state Route 167 abruptly stops in the Puyallup area, leaving a six-mile unfinished gap that was supposed to link Pierce County to Interstate 405 and state Route 18. That corridor should be a bustling freight thoroughfare; tens of thousands of jobs could be created by closing the gap.

Many other projects, big and small, are on the urgent list.

They include widening the Joint Base Lewish-McChord bottleneck on Interstate 5 between Lakewood and Lacey, additional lanes on Interstate 405 and Snoqualmie Pass, and an extension of Spokane’s North-South Freeway. Crumbling highways must be repaved; bridges must be rescued from decay.

The needs are self-evident, and only a handful of issues separate Democratic and Republican legislative leaders. Yet they haven’t managed a breakthrough.

In the meantime, 2013 has slipped into 2014, heightening pre-election jitters about any tax vote. And the snake-bit effort to replace the state Route 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington has blown its budget by $170 million, potentially creating a false impression that the state doesn’t know how to do bridges or highways.

In reality, the state Department of Transportation routinely succeeds at large, complex projects, such as the Narrows bridge, and the overhaul of the Nalley Valley viaduct and the expansion of I-5 in Tacoma. The public needs to hear that story.

It would help if someone locked Republican and Democrats leaders into a room and told them they couldn’t come out until they have a deal. Three examples of resolvable differences:

 • Democrats could stop fighting the idea of exempting highway projects from the sales tax. Republicans say the cost to the education portion of the operating budget would be small in the scheme of things – $30 million a year – and wouldn’t kick in until 2017, when the Legislature should largely have satisfied the supreme court’s demand for more education funding.

 • Some Democrats are stuck in a narrative that the Republican proposal doesn’t fund public transit. In fact, Republicans have come a very long way on transit, and some of the highway projects they support would be a godsend for buses – which go nowhere without roads. At some point, Democrats should take yes for an answer.

 • Republicans could relax their insistence that local jurisdictions have complete control over $1.3 billion of the package’s non-highway money. That’s a recipe for balkanization, and efficient transit projects can’t be done piecemeal, with haphazard connections among cities and counties.

There are probably multiple ways to make everyone happy – or half-happy – on this question. For example, a “federal” solution might allow for sub-county planning bodies that would give local officials a large voice in how money is spent while requiring cross-jurisdiction coordination.

The point is, each of the remaining sticking points could be unstuck by reasonable lawmakers with the state’s interest in mind. The two sides are already close, and good negotiators know how to get from close to all the way there.