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Senate transportation budget largely mirrors House proposal

March 27, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Democrats in the state Senate released their two-year transportation budget Tuesday, proposing spending $9.9 billion on areas that broadly mirror a proposal in the House.

The budget, announced by the head of the Senate Transportation Committee, includes money to begin electrifying the state’s ferry system, jump-start planning on a replacement for the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River, and beginning work on a multi-billion-dollar court order for salmon spawning barriers.

The plan is part of the state’s overall spending and fundraising levels, which the Legislature goes through every two years, and comes a day after Democrats in the state House released their transportation budget.

Despite broader criticism from Republicans over Democratic spending proposals for the state operating budget, the transportation proposals brought less early debate, with Republicans on both transportation committees calling them reasonable.

Republican Sen. Phil Fortunato, a committee member, said he largely approved of the spending in the bill, although he questioned the sustainability of the revenue it depends on, which is tied to the state’s gas tax.

Fortunato, of Auburn, said he was concerned the tax won’t be able to keep pace with inflation, which contributes to construction costs.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, a Lake Stevens Democrat who heads the committee, said he was happy to continue funding long-term transportation projects the Legislature planned in 2016 without significant new gas taxes or other fees.

Both the Senate and House budgets propose spending $9.9 billion, including on projects in the I-90 and I-405 corridors, as well as on numerous smaller highways.

Both set aside just under $4 billion for highway improvements and preservation, and fund starting construction on one new hybrid-electric ferry and converting two more existing vessels.

The Tuesday budget represents a second, more limited proposal from Hobbs, who at the beginning of the month introduced a much broader plan.

His earlier plan — called Forward Washington — proposed billions in new fees to fund 10 years of transportation projects, including compliance with a multi-billion-dollar federal court order.

That order, stemming from tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon, requires the state to upgrade more than 900 culverts to ease salmon passage, many by 2030, at a cost estimated at $3.5 billion.

The plan included a carbon fee.

While Hobbs’ 10-year plan is separate from the two-year budget rolled out Tuesday, the two share one common thread: Revenue from the carbon fee in Hobbs’ earlier plan is wrapped into the smaller budget as well.

Tuesday’s budget proposes using revenue from the carbon fee to pay for the replacement of the culverts, and bites off a bigger chunk of the state’s culvert obligation: $309 million would be set aside in the Senate plan, as opposed to $239 million in the House plan.

Without the carbon fee, Hobbs said, increased borrowing may be needed.

The Senate plan also includes funding to re-start work on a replacement for the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River.

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