Fate of transportation package uncertain as Legislature moves into special session

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OLYMPIA, Washington — With dueling proposals for the state's education and operating budgets topping the Legislature's agenda for its imminent special session, the likelihood of Republicans and Democrats finding consensus on a transportation package to address the state's infrastructure needs has dipped out of the spotlight.

That isn't entirely unintentional.

"We're in the midst of lots of things. The less said the better off we are at this point," said Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee.

It's been a decade since Washington passed a 2005 deal to build a lengthy list of roads, bridges and transit projects with $7 billion in new revenues, principally a 9.5-cent gas tax. The Legislature failed in each of the last two years to pass a follow-up while the state's infrastructure kept aging.

Lawmakers don't face the same mandate to get a transportation deal done that the Supreme Court's contempt order puts behind education spending or the threat of government shutdown gives the overall operating budget, but leaders have spoken of the urgency of passing a package.

This year, the Senate, House and Gov. Jay Inslee are each pushing packages that tie together road building, transit and tax revenue. Leaders say they want to escape the specters of previous failures by working out a deal during the extended session that starts Wednesday.

"I'm hopeful we'll be able to finish this job," Inslee said. "Traffic is unbelievable for people right now. I think both chambers have recognized the need for a package, and that's a good start"

To do that, legislators have been meeting since mid-April about the competing proposals.

The Senate, controlled by Republicans, passed a $15 billion package in March with bipartisan support, tied to an 11.7-cent gas tax increase. It includes $8 billion in road projects, including the North-South Freeway in Spokane and Interstate 90 on Snoqualmie Pass, and gives Sound Transit permission to ask voters for up to $11 billion in regional taxes to fund expansion projects.

The Democratic-controlled House has a similar plan to build the same roads, but authorizes Sound Transit to ask voters for the full $15 billion the agency says it needs to complete light rail from Everett to Tacoma. Inslee's plan includes the $15 billion authorization, but also funds transportation with a cap-and-trade plan that charges polluters to pay for transportation projects.

There are conflicts in the details. For example, the Senate proposal would kick mass-transit dollars back into the main transportation account if Inslee-supported low-carbon-fuel standards are enacted. The Senate also wants to exempt road building from sales tax, which the House does not.

House Transportation chair Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said many of the early negotiating hours have been spent sorting out the plans' components.

"Nothing's off the table," Clibborn said.

Legislative leaders' plan is for a deal to be reached on transportation separate from the operating budget negotiations.

Will that succeed?

"It's more likely than not," Clibborn said.

Guarded optimism exists on both sides of the aisle.

"A lot of people want to get it done," said Rep. Joel Kretz of Wauconda, House Republicans' ranking member of the Transportation Committee.

But Kretz said that he and others have concerns about wasteful spending under the current system, and his colleagues want to see reform bills be part of any final deal.

When asked about negotiations, Rep. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Transportation committee, ran through a list of potential hot-button topics that need to be worked out, from taxes to carbon standards,

"We're not yelling at each other. We're still talking," Hobbs said. "Both sides are like, 'Hey, we can come to a compromise on something.'"

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AP correspondent Rachel La Corte contributed to this story.

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