West-side woes put transportation-tax deal in question

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OLYMPIA — A proposed multibillion-dollar, transportation-tax package is as bogged down as Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine.

New obstacles to an agreement are piling up quickly, including a fight over who should pay for Bertha getting stuck while plowing a new underground path for Highway 99, cost overruns related to construction of the Highway 520 bridge, and a debate over a possible climate-change regulation.

The GOP-led majority in the Senate and the Democratic majority in the House have been trying for months to agree on a tax package that would increase the state gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon and fund about $10 billion to $12 billion in transportation spending over the next 12 years, including expansions to Interstate 405 and Highway 167.

Lawmakers remain stuck on longstanding issues including stormwater treatment, sales taxes collected from transportation projects, and funding for public transportation.

But Seattle’s troubled megaprojects drew a lot of attention Thursday at an Associated Press forum that looked ahead to the legislative session that starts Monday.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, Adams County, indicated Seattle would be on the hook for possible Bertha cost overruns, referring to a provision approved by lawmakers in 2009 even though some questioned whether it could be enforced.

“It would be very hard to convince a legislator from Vancouver or Yakima or Spokane to change hundreds of millions in dollars in spending to cover that action. Right now, the law is the law,” Schoesler said.

However, House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said the state should pay the tab. “Seattle is not on the hook for cost overruns on the tunnel,” she said.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee suggested the company drilling the tunnel should pay, noting the state’s contract specified it was the contractor’s responsibility to remove obstructions previously identified by the state. He said more research is needed.

Bertha has been stalled for more than a month by a 119-foot-long well casing left behind by a research crew. The location of the well was included in state documentation given to the contractor.

The costs of the delays are unknown, and the Department of Transportation has refused to offer an estimate. The tunnel budget has nearly $120 million in reserves.

Other complications

In addition to Bertha, lawmakers are concerned about cost overruns for the new 520 bridge.

The state this week announced it will need an additional $170 million to pay for problems, including cracks in the floating bridge’s pontoons. Some of the money will need to come from other planned transportation projects, DOT Secretary Lynn Peterson said Wednesday.

“I do think it erodes public support for a (tax) package,” Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, Cowlitz County, said of projects such as Highway 99 and Highway 520. “ I just got an email from a constituent saying, ‘I don’t have a problem with taxes, but I’m concerned about paying taxes when I see these kinds of things occurring.’ ”

Lawmakers said rumors about Inslee instituting low carbon-fuel standards through executive order or agency regulation also are bogging down transportation negotiations.

Inslee has championed the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and signed a pact with Oregon, California and British Columbia last year promising to do so.

A low carbon-fuel standard is a policy designed to reduce the amount of carbon in transportation fuels. Inslee was vague about what it might entail

Republicans contend such a policy would drive up fuel costs and hurt the economy, They have asked Inslee to promise he would not take action unilaterally.

“The potential of severe economic impact is enormous,” said House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

Clibborn said she’s been hearing from the trucking industry about the prospect. “That hanging over our head has probably more of an opportunity to hurt us going forward ... than any of the mistakes we’re talking about,” she said, adding that she hoped the governor would clarify his plans.

Inslee expressed surprise that fuel standards are even an issue, saying no lawmaker had raised it during previous transportation negotiations. He also disagreed that such a policy would significantly increase costs. He did not indicate if he would take action on his own.

“We have not made a decision on a low carbon-fuel standard, and before we make any decision on that or any other measure we will be doing a full economic and environmental assessment of those rules,” he said.

On top of all those issues, legislators also are bickering over who should make the next move.

Democrats maintain it’s up to the GOP-led caucus in the Senate to prove it can pass a bipartisan transportation package out of that chamber before talks can progress. The House passed a transportation plan last year, but it died in the Senate.

GOP Sen. Curtis King, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the Senate will obviously need to pass one at some point, but said that doesn’t need to happen for negotiations to proceed.

“If that was true, then we’ve spent six months doing nothing,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better to try to reach an agreement among all parties?”

King said he could not get enough votes from his GOP-led caucus to pass any transportation-tax package, given the opposition to tax increases. Asked if half his caucus would vote for a package, King said, “I cannot answer that question.”

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