House, Senate pass transportation budget in final hour

As the 2012 supplemental operating budget negotiations froze nearing adjournment of the 2012 session, the Washington State legislature did reach agreement on a different major spending plan on March 8: the transportation budget.

A bipartisan transportation supplemental budget that overwhelmingly passed in both chambers raises $57 million in new revenue over the remainder of the 2011-2013 biennium with various fee increases. The new money would primarily go toward debt service on a second 144-vehicle ferry, transit operation grants and provide seed money for future projects statewide. State Patrol and Washington State Ferries operations accounts, which are both projected to go into the red in 2013, would receive $16 million combined from the new revenues.

The additive revenues are projected to raise a further $183.5 million for the same projects and accounts during the 2013-2015 biennium.

While the budget adopted Thursday is a short-term solution to the Connecting Washington Task Force's call for a $21 billion investment in transportation infrastructure over the next 10 years, transportation leaders were able to cross party lines and put together a budget which both parties agreed they could support.

"I feel really positive about it," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th, Camano Island), chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "It's an extraordinarily good budget, I think, considering the limited amount of money that we had."

Haugen said that the budget would create or sustain 43,000 jobs for the rest of the biennium.

"We've done some major things this year with the Alaskan Way Viaduct and I-405 and the Columbia River Crossing and SR-520," said Haugen. "We're keeping all those projects moving. It's truly a jobs bill."

Washington and Oregon have equal funding responsibilities on shared components of the Columbia River toll bridge project, according to budget language.

Sen. Don Benton (R-17th, Vancouver), one of six senators to vote against the transportation plan, HB 2190, said that though he agrees the budget does a lot of good, he couldn't support it on the basis of the further $92 million appropriation for the Columbia River Crossing.

He cited a report that surfaced March 2 in an article in The Columbian in which Coast Guard officials said in a letter dated Dec. 7, 2011, that the planned bridge height for the $3.5 billion project is too low to receive an essential permit to allow for its construction and would need to be corrected. Total expenditures on the project through January are $144 million.

Despite the date-stamp on the letter from the Coast Guard, The Columbian maintained that the CRC's director said the height concerns came as a surprise, a statement Benton characterized as untrue.

Benton conceded that "there's a lot of good stuff in that budget, but I just think it sends the wrong signal to the DOT that it's okay to lie to the Legislature," he said of allocating more monies to the project. "I don't think it's okay to lie to the Legislature."

He added, "That's horrible and you should not reward that kind of behavior by passing a budget and giving them more money."

Benton recalled a conversation with Haugen regarding the issue, in which he claimed the chairwoman sided with the DOT, saying that they didn't know about the issues with the bridge height.

"Like all budgets, there's a lot of good in there, so maybe those guys just decided, 'well there's more good than bad,'" said Benton.

Yakima Sen. Curtis King (R-14th) echoed Benton's statements to a degree, but said overall he was pleased with the budget. He described the major highlights as the building of the new ferry boat and the additional funds that take "some of the pressure off of the shortfalls that were being projected in the ferry system and the state patrol accounts."

"I think those are probably the two biggest factors in how we keep the transportation flowing," said King, the ranking minority member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

House Transportation Chairwoman, Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41st, Mercer Island), said the budget "helps us get through the next biennium fairly well. Ferries and State Patrol, those are the ones in our budget that hit red in 2013, so we'll have that helped and then local governments and the transits get some money. There's nothing to not like (in the budget), there's just not very much (money)."

She said, however, that in order to maintain the transportation infrastructure and secure projects going forward, a substantial revenue package is needed.

She said voters should expect to see some kind of proposal on the ballots in 2014, a timeline Haugen agreed with.

Though King isn't sure a massive revenue package is the only option, he acknowledged its possibility.

"We have lots of projects that require lots of money, so it's going to come down to how pertinent are those projects and how important are they to our transportation system as a whole and can we raise money, can we find additional monies and how do we accomplish that," he said.

"How much can the people of the state of Washington afford?" he posed.

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