Piles of cash allow Democrats to abandon bipartisan tradition on transportation

Money may not buy happiness, but a huge pile of cash can seemingly get you out of the tedious process of reaching a bipartisan agreement on how to improve the state’s transportation system.

This process has traditionally relied on the issuance of government bonds backed by gas tax revenues and other sources. Bonds — indebting the state — require a supermajority of the Legislature and therefore votes from minority Republicans.

But a unique confluence of new sources of money for roads, ferries, public transit and other modes of transportation allows majority Democrats to throw out that system and pay for the plan without issuing debt.

One of the Anacortes refineries with Mount Baker in the background. You can think of the pile as spat money for green transportation projects.

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

The package also includes $3.4 billion in new federal infrastructure funds and a highly unusual $2 billion grant from the state’s general fund, which is not normally tapped for this type of spending. The general fund is fed by that other big influx of federal money, the COVID aid that we like to think of as Uncle Joe’s (UJPoC) Money Pile.

One thing missing is a gas tax increase, at least for the people of Washington. We will come back to this in the next article.

With no need to court Republican votes, Democratic transportation leaders drafted a spending plan much more focused on public transit and drive-free modes than previous plans. There is $3 billion for public transit and over $1.2 billion for projects and programs for pedestrians and cyclists. This is possible in part because of less reliance on gas tax money, which can only be spent on the highways and vehicle transportation aspects of the ferry system.

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

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of asphalt. Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Over Columbia River Costs $1 Billion, State Route 18 Widening In East King County Gets $640 Million, US Highway 2 Trestle Bridge In Snohomish County Gets $210 million. These drafts are essential to set the final votes if the package is adopted.

We mention Highway 2 because it’s kind of a symbol of how things used to work. The trestle was the favorite project of former transportation committee chairman Steve Hobbs, one of the architects of the last bipartisan transportation package. That plan included the famous blocking of the “poison pill” provision that effectively prevented the state from imposing a low-carbon fuel standard until last year.

Hobbs, you will recall, was recently elevated to Secretary of State by Governor Jay Inslee in a shrewd act of realpolitik that removed the Snohomish County moderate from the committee chair. One of the consequences of this decision was the accession of Senator Marko Liias to the presidency of transport. Liias, D-Edmonds, is much more aligned with the progressive wing of the caucus.

Asked about the one-party nature of the plan on Tuesday, Liias smiled and noted that no Republicans voted in favor of the Climate Commitment Act last year.

A gas tax increase, but for Oregon, Idaho, etc.

If you’re fueling up in Washington State, the Legislature’s proposed transportation plan won’t cost you any additional gas taxes. But if you enjoy the Oregon luxury of sitting in your car while someone else pumps gas, it will cost you.

That’s because the plan assumes a new tax on fuel exported from Washington’s five refineries. These plants — two in Anacortes, two in Cherry Point in Whatcom County, one in Tacoma — produce nearly all of the fuel consumed in the Pacific Northwest.

The plan assumes that the 6-cent tax will raise some $2 billion over the 16-year plan. J

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