Democrats Dream Big for State Transportation

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The $16.8 billion, 16-year transportation package rolled out by Democrats on last Tuesday includes $5.4 billion from the Climate Commitment Act, the state’s new cap-and-trade system for major producers of carbon emissions. That law was specifically written to direct significant money toward reducing the carbon footprint of the state’s transportation system. 

The package also includes $3.4 billion in new federal infrastructure money and a highly unusual $2 billion subsidy from the state’s general fund, which doesn’t normally get tapped for this kind of spending. The general fund is flush from that other big influx of federal money, the COVID aid we like to think of as Uncle Joe’s Pile of Cash (UJPoC).

One thing that’s missing is a boost to the gas tax — at least for those who live in Washington.

With no need to court Republican votes, Democratic transportation leaders wrote a spending plan much more focused on transit and non-driving forms of transportation than previous plans. There’s $3 billion for transit and more than $1.2 billion for projects and programs aimed at pedestrians and bicyclists. That’s possible in part because of the smaller reliance on gas tax money, which can only be spent on highways and the vehicle-hauling aspects of the ferry system.

There’s also around $1.5 billion for the ferry system, including $400 million from the cap-and-trade money to begin electrifying that fleet, which has a huge carbon footprint.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of asphalt. Replacing the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is down for $1 billion, widening State Route 18 in East King County gets $640 million, and the U.S. Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County gets $210 million. Those projects are essential for nailing down the last few votes if the package is going to pass. 

The Highway 2 project is something of a symbol of the way things used to work. The trestle was the pet project of former Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs, one of the architects of the last bipartisan transportation package. That plan included the infamous “poison pill” provision that effectively blocked the state from imposing a low-carbon fuel standard until last year. 

Hobbs, you’ll remember, was recently elevated to Secretary of State by Gov. Jay Inslee in a deft piece of realpolitik that removed the Snohomish County moderate as chair of the committee. One of the consequences of that move was the ascension of Sen. Marko Liias to the chair of Transportation. Liias, D-Edmonds, is much more aligned with the progressive wing of the caucus. He just co-wrote an op-ed touting the Move Ahead Washington package and noting that the measure avoids raising the gas tax.

When asked about the one-party nature of the plan on Tuesday, Liias smiled and noted that no Republican cast a vote in favor of the Climate Commitment Act last year.  

This article first appeared in the author’s news service, Washington State Wire.

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Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.

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