Can lawmakers come together to increase transportation funding in the short session? Maybe.

In the Seattle Times, David Korean reports on prospects for a transportation bill emerging from the short legislative session. As he writes, there’s bipartisan agreement that something  must be done, but less agreement on what the something is. 

As elected officials enter a short 60-day session, negotiating a multi-billion-dollar agreement could be a tightrope walk. The talks will unfold before the backdrop of billions in delayed maintenance projects, transit systems that are overstretched and understaffed, a highway system struggling to meet the needs of Washington residents and an election 10 months away.

Both sides of the aisle are interested in spending more on transportation. The size and scope of those investments remains a point of debate.

For lawmakers reluctant to raise gas taxes, the state’s flush operating budget provides a good option.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he’s open to conversations about a bill that does not include new taxes. So far, his interactions with Democrats have been limited, he said. He would like to see the Legislature set aside roughly $3 billion for maintenance and improvements between now and 2027 by tapping into the state’s operating fund and repurposing certain sales taxes.

Certain projects will top legislators’ lists of priorities: the beleaguered ferry system, which has struggled with crew shortages and trip cancellations; the 520 highway’s Montlake interchange; adding bus lanes to interstate 405; a possible trestle on Highway 2; fixing the state’s culverts for salmon; and the long-discussed I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.

As the Washington Research Council has reported, state transportation revenues continue to lag pre-pandemic projections. And as the WRC wrote at the time, the operating budget provides a vehicle to address the shortfall. See the post for a look at some pre-filed legislation.

Kroman reports,

Shortly after accepting his new position on the transportation committee, [Senate Transportation Chair Marko] Liias said he started canvassing members on their appetite for a gas tax. He found it lacking, in large part because of the newly available pots of money. Instead, “I started floating this idea of, what if we scaled back and just did the most emergent things, just like we’ve had to do on so much stuff because the pandemic,” he said. “We’re gonna have to take this in a phased way.”

“What’s clear is, there will be some needs that remain not fully addressed,” he added.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who barely won re-election in 2020 after facing a challenge from the left, said he’s “optimistic” a funding bill will come together and agreed it can and should be done without raising the gas tax. “If you can do a package without a gas tax, I think it’s a huge win,” he said.

There are hurdles to contend with, as a key Republican senator says.

“I’m not sure [a package] is going to happen in this session,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation committee. “It’s a short session, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion, we have a new chair in the Senate — a very capable chair, but a new chair — and normally in the past our transportation packages have been bipartisan. From a Democrat, Republican point of view, there hasn’t been a lot of talk across the aisle.”

Still, getting something started this year would, a Mullett says, be a huge win. The need is apparent.