The 2013 legislative session which was scheduled to last 105 days ended up stretching to 153 days after the conclusion of two additional “special” sessions. While it took longer than any of us liked to reach agreement on a state budget, in many ways the results were worth the wait. Education investments are increasing by 12 percent over the next two years, which among other things prevented tuition increases at state higher-education institutions for the first time in almost 30 years. The funding also allowed for smaller class sizes in kindergarten and first grade.
One issue where legislators were unable to come to agreement was transportation funding. Some in Olympia were pushing for a new package of infrastructure improvements to be supported by an increase in the state gas tax and other transportation fees. Our bipartisan coalition leading the Senate felt it wasn’t the time to ask the public to consider a tax increase. In the end, neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate approved a transportation package and a mechanism to fund it.
There have been times in recent history when the Legislature came together on transportation proposals. In 2003 and 2005 packages were adopted that built new roads and made improvements to existing ones in our 12th Legislative District and across the state. Along with most legislators, I supported the 2003 package because it was well-structured; the projects included were selected based on specific criteria such as improving safety or relieving congestion. That was not the case in 2005 and the result was more divided with many legislators — including me — voting against it.
Our Senate coalition was unwilling to go along with a new transportation package during the 2013 session due to some serious shortcomings with the current system. How can we expect anyone to support new taxes at a time when it consistently costs more to build a road in Washington than other states? There are also the recent high-profile blunders such as cost overruns on the State Route 520 replacement bridge between Seattle and Bellevue that may reach $400 million, and project-planning flaws like the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver that was designed too low to accommodate marine shipping.
We simply cannot continue to make these kinds of mistakes. Our Senate coalition came to the conclusion that we need to “fix it then fund it,” meaning that the state’s transportation system has to be reformed before any new funding is considered. Fortunately, we have solutions available to make the system more efficient.
As an example, state law currently requires sales tax to be paid on transportation projects. In other words, the state pays sales tax – to itself. That means your gas-tax dollars shift from the transportation budget to the state’s general fund, and pay for things such as prisons and parks. Eliminating this requirement would keep your gas-tax dollars in the transportation budget, where they belong, and build additional infrastructure so transportation dollars go further.
Washington’s permitting policies are another source of discretionary costs and delay in building infrastructure. After the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed in May, many permitting requirements were suspended to allow the bridge to be rebuilt quickly. The replacement was completed within a month, while other projects linger for years.
As a state, we need to have a conversation about transportation. That’s why our Senate coalition is leading a statewide “listening tour” to gather public input. Next Monday, Sept. 23, a Transportation Leadership Forum will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Chelan County PUD auditorium. We’ll be sharing our ideas about transportation reform, and hearing from you about your transportation priorities and how you feel we should move forward.
We all have a stake in our state’s transportation policy. It’s very important that any future legislative action regarding transportation reflect the input of North Central Washington. I encourage anyone interested to attend the Sept. 23 meeting and make your voice heard!
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette is the Majority Coalition Caucus Chair and has served the 12th Legislative District in the Legislature since 1997. She is a lifelong resident of North Central Washington.