Transportation plans wing through Olympia

Efforts to fix Washington State’s transportation woes are picking up speed in Olympia this week — majority House Democrats unveiled a statewide tax package Tuesday, the Senate is about to do the same, and Gov. Gary Locke proposed a compromise plan Wednesday.

“I’ve been meeting on an almost weekly basis with transportation committee chairmen for the House and Senate,” Locke announced earlier this week. “Both sides are close to agreement, and there is no reason we cannot reach a compromise.”

The House version prescribes a 10-year, $2.6 billion tax package that invests in highways and auto ferries, as well as public transportation and passenger and freight rail projects.

House members are proposing a 3-cent gas tax increase, above the existing 23-cent a gallon gas tax; a new 0.6 tax on the transfer of new and used motor vehicles, to be charged at the time of sale; and a 15 percent gross weight surcharge for trucks of more than 10,000 pounds.

The gas tax increase would be phased in over three years, at one cent per year, with the one-cent increase costing the average driver another $7 a year, according to House sources.

Although the Senate has yet to unveil its own transportation plan, leaders say they support a larger proposal that relies on a 5-cent gas tax increase.

Locke’s proposed 10-year, $3.2 billion transportation fix falls somewhere in between the two.

Locke suggests increasing the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon, implementing a 0.5 percent new and used title transfer transaction fee and a 15 percent gross weight surcharge for trucks of more than 10,000 pounds.

The governor said, if fully bonded, each one-cent increase in the gas tax could raise an additional $500 million in the next 10 years. In turn, the money could generate 3,000 highway construction jobs, Locke said.

“We simply have to provide more funding to deal with the state’s worsening transportation crisis,” Locke said.

Locke’s plan and the House proposal address Washington State Ferries in different ways.

The house plan relies, in large part, on WSF director Mike Thorne’s strategic business plan that calls for a five percent increase in fares this year, a 5 percent reduction in expenditures and a 5 percent increase in additional revenues.

Under the plan, enough existing revenues are freed up to purchase two auto vessels to start replacing the 1927-era steel electric boats, and one passenger-only ferry.

New revenues generated under the House tax proposal could purchase an additional two auto replacement boats and another passenger-only ferry vessel.

Locke’s plan is silent on passenger-only ferry service, except that it provides Kitsap Transit with a one-time, $5 million grant to assist the agency in its effort to launch continued foot-ferry service in Kitsap.

But new revenues generated under Locke’s tax proposal would also pay for two additional auto ferry boats to replace the steel electrics.

And the savings from discontinuing passenger-only ferry service, as suggested by Washington State Ferries officials for cost-savings reasons, would go toward the purchase of two other auto ferry replacements.

As for highway improvements, there are a few similarly listed projects under both the House proposal and the governor’s plan.

Both versions allocate $11 million in new funding to widen State Route 304, from State Route 3 to the Bremerton Ferry Terminal.

Both also set aside $91 million in new funding for work on State Route 16. The project would add an additional lane in each direction from Olympic Drive in Gig Harbor to Union Street, just near Interstate 5.

“A solution is within our reach,” Locke said.

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