If You Love This Transportation Bill, It Won’t Pass

Washington State legislators may consider a $6b transportation investment proposal. Image – Washington State Capitol, Bobak Ha’Eri, Wikimedia Commons

A $6 billion dollar proposal to maintain and preserve Washington state roads, bridges and transit systems will be revealed Wednesday. The proposal, from House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, will incorporate financing and spending elements requested by business, labor, state and local public agencies, the environmental community, many legislators, and other groups.

Here’s the thing. If the bill is absolutely loved by any one of those groups, the bill probably goes too far in one direction and can’t pass.  Ironically, to pass the Legislature and withstand a challenge by initiative, the bill must have elements that every groups loves and hates.

For example: too much money for roads, and the bike-ped and transit folks will either work against the proposal or – just as bad from a campaign perspective – not work for it.  Conversely, if the proposal is perceived to have too much money for bike-ped and perhaps transit, the business community and roads crowd may not support the proposal strongly enough for it to pass.

The House is taking the lead and will announce the initial proposal on Tuesday.  The Senate will not work up its own version, but is likely to use the House version as a jumping off point. The Governor almost certainly won’t publish a proposal, but will voice his priorities and weigh in on legislative proposals

The financing will a include gas tax of between eight to ten cents (increasingly, it sounds like ten cents) phased in over a number of years, an increase to a number of existing transportation-related fees, and some new fees, over a period of up to ten years. Little of the money is expected to be bonded. A majority of the last two state gas tax increases was bonded, leaving the state in a difficult situation for funding maintenance and preservation.

Spending will be focused on maintenance, preservation and operations of the existing transportation network. However, at least a handful of projects will receive funding – mostly likely megaprojects like SR 167 and SR 509, the I-5 Columbia River Crossing, I-405, I-90 Snoqualmie Pass, and the North Spokane Corridor.

The proposal will have aspects that every stakeholder loves and hates. The challenges to cobbling together such a proposal are daunting:

Start with the financing:

  • Where’s the sweet spot between raising the gas tax enough to get things done, and too much that it generates widespread opposition?
  • How to fund transit (which can’t be funded through the gas tax)
  • How much of the proceeds – if any – to bond. This provides a lot of money up front but commits that revenue stream for the foreseeable future to bond repayments
  • Fees – again, what’s the sweet spot for existing fees. New fees may be proposed more for political reasons than financial.  For example, a sales tax on new bicycles over $400 won’t provide much revenue – but will satisfy some legislators who believe bicyclists don’t “pay their fair share.”

Move to distributing the proceeds:

  • How much to the state versus counties versus cities?
  • How much to the urban economic engine regions, versus rural communities?
  • What’s the split between construction, versus maintenance and operations?
  • How much to roads (regardless of construction or M&O) versus transit versus ferries vs bike-ped vs freight? Stormwater?
  • Fund a very few projects to completion versus advancing a lot of planned projects, versus starting new projects?
  • Oh, and what about funding for the State Patrol and Dept. of Licensing?

End with the politics:

  • Most House Republicans are opposed to a gas tax increase.  Some are more open to a proposal in 2014 or 2015, when presumably the economy is better and after some reforms have been initiated.
  • The Senate is by controlled by a coalition of Republicans and two Democrats. However, one of the Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, said he would support a gas tax hike.
  • The specter of Initiative 1185 hovers over the proposal. Approved by 64% of voters last November, it requires two-thirds legislative approval or a vote by the people to raise taxes. It passed in all but five of the state’s 49 legislative districts.
  • Legislators differ on whether to pass the bill with a 2/3 majority (assuming that might be possible), or pass the bill as a referendum to the people for them to decide. Either way, this will end up being decided by the voters either by referendum or initiative.
  • If the bill is passed by the legislature, there’s probably a 99% certainty of an initiative challenge.
  • A campaign will be required to oppose an anti-gas tax initiative or support a pro-gas tax referendum. That means you have to craft a bill (see “financing” and “distributing” above) and that leaves all stakeholders satisfied enough to contribute campaign resources. If any of the major three (business, labor, and environment) interests are lukewarm about the bill’s contents, they won’t contribute the campaign resources necessary for victory.

Washington’s legislative session is about to get very interesting.

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