Highway package: Get it done already, lawmakers

Are Washington’s lawmakers capable of putting politics aside – only briefly – in an election year? The fate of a crucial state highways-and-transit package will soon tell us.

The partisan quibbling over this transportation legislation is getting very old. For the better part of a year, a majority of lawmakers have recognized that Washington’s roads, bridges and transit systems must be brought into the 21st century. That majority even agrees – almost – on how to do it.

Last year, House Democrats narrowly passed a $10.5 billion plan that would fund such economic imperatives as the completion of state Route 167 between Puyallup and Interstate 5. The plan would have opened up traffic chokepoints across the state – unplugging, for example, the bottlenecks that threaten the future of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. It failed in the Senate.

Since then, Senate Republicans – not the tax cranks, but most of the rest – have coalesced around a very similar package. Its latest version, priced at $12.3 billion, was released Thursday.

Like the old House plan, it would increase the gas tax and various fees. It would buy more projects than the House plan, including a major effort to ease the crippling jams on Interstate 5 between Lakewood and Lacey.

Most Washingtonians would look at these two plans and wonder why the two sides haven’t been able to split their differences in the last three months. Yet they’re still quarreling over issues that could be worked out over a long lunch.

For example, the Republicans want to end the state’s practice of collecting sales taxes on its own construction projects, a move that would make those projects cheaper. The vast majority of states don’t do this, and most Washingtonians would probably be startled to find out that this state does.

Democrats are fixated on perpetuating the practice because ending it would impose a short-term hit on the state’s regular operating budget. Yet the projects themselves would create jobs, economic expansion and tax revenues that would more than offset the hit in the future.

The point is investment. The revenues don’t materialize if the projects don’t get done.

Republicans have their own fixations. Some of them are bent on diverting money from a fund dedicated to cleaning up toxic-waste sites. The money involved is a pittance, about $24 million a year, yet for some reason it’s worth risking the loss of the entire package and all that it means for the future of the state.

To an outsider, closure would seem to be well within reach. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has reserved a room and invited the key lawmakers to join him there Wednesday. He ought to turn the thermostat up to 80 degrees and have the doors barred until the combatants figure out how to do right by the state and walk out with smiles on their faces.