Infrastructure uncertainty – in Congress and Olympia

Here’s what frustrates transportation planners and the people dependent on good roads and bridges. The feds finally get around to addressing the highway trust fund and …

The U.S. Congress voted to extend federal funds for highways and mass-transit programs through July while lawmakers work on a longer-term financing plan.

The Senate’s voice vote early Saturday followed House passage Tuesday of the measure, which will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. The Highway Trust Fund’s current authority to reimburse states for transportation spending is set to expire May 31, at the start of the summer construction season.

Two months! Not nearly good enough. We wrote about the unstable federal-state partnership in our research report

Historically, the federal government has played a significant role in funding maintenance and preservation of state roads and bridges; however, federal funding has become less certain in recent years. The ongoing uncertainty makes planning difficult and further delays vital investment. 

The National Association of Manufacturers makes the right point.

Dealing with long-term transportation funding at a later date is not leadership.

With deteriorating roads and bridges, aging transit systems and growing maintenance backlogs across the states, Congress is telling manufacturers, businesses and the American people that transportation can wait.

The News Tribune editorial board has a similar message for Washington legislators.

The most pressing problem is congestion and the slow strangulation of freight movement. The Legislature could do something about it tomorrow: approve a transportation package that — in different forms — has already cleared both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

So far, the Republican and Democratic lawmakers haven’t made the necessary compromises. Failure to do so before they go home would be beyond shameful.

Funding a sustainable, long-term and  comprehensive transportation package must be a priority in the second special session here. And Congress needs to recognize that it is a vital partner and act provide the certainty states require. The investment can’t wait.

 

Obama administration warns states that Fed transportation money running out

Yesterday we cited the Infrastructure Week emphasis on rebuilding American infrastructure. In that post, we noted stalled efforts to renew critical federal funding, something Opportunity Washington wrote about in the transportation discussion in our research report. 

Today, the Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is warning states that federal highway funding runs out at the end of the month.

“Unless Congress acts prior to this date, the Federal Highway Administration will be unable to make any new obligations of federal-aid funds to your department’s highway projects,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a letter to state authorities this week. “Unlike last summer’s cash shortfall when states faced the prospect of delayed payments, under a lapse in authorization, reimbursements on all projects will be halted completely, not simply delayed.”

The WaPo notes that an extension is expected. Extensions, however, aren’t certainty. And certainty is what’s required. This has become a pattern, one that frustrates long-range planning.

If Congress moves to patch the pothole in funding, it would be the 33rd time in the past six years that lawmakers have exercised that option rather than pass a long-term bill.

Taking that route again will exacerbate frustration among state and local officials, many of whom have delayed or suspended projects that depend on long-term commitments in federal funding.

The certainty of federal uncertainty adds urgency to transportation discussions in Olympia. A comprehensive state transportation package is necessary now. 

 

Taxing carbon: Making an improbable comeback in state budget discussions?

Plenty of recent press coverage suggests that some form of carbon taxation may find its way into an eventual state budget resolution. While it likely still faces heavy sledding in the Senate, House Democrats say they may have the votes

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Des Moines and the point man on the carbon legislation, said providing 50 Democratic votes for the new plan will depend on how it eventually fits in with the final budget package that the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-dominated Senate will eventually reach. Right now, the two sides are far apart in the talks on the main state budget.

This isn’t the proposal originally proposed by the governor. But the Washington Research Council’s report on carbon taxation still provides good context for understanding the general issues.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the new bill, SHB 1314, Thursday at 1:00 p.m. The Seattle Times reports on parallel activity in the Senate.

We’re trying to turn this into an economic winner in rural areas, as well as something that is going to deal with our climate-change problem,” said state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, chief sponsor of the revised proposal in the Senate.

The Times summarizes key changes in the proposal.

The basic framework of the cap-and-trade system — essentially a new tax on carbon emissions — would remain the same under the revised proposal.

The state would set a cap on carbon emissions and require the biggest emitters, such as refineries and fuel distributors, to buy tradable pollution permits. Over time, the emissions cap would be reduced, forcing industries to cut their emissions or buy increasingly expensive permits.

The Democrats’ new proposal would alter how the estimated $1.2 billion raised annually from carbon fees is divvied up, according to summaries of the bill revisions provided Monday.

 

There’s plenty more in the article…and House Democrats provide this 3-page summary…but those who were skeptical of the original proposal remain skeptics.

“This is still a tax on energy,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, adding that the effort seems to be more about Democrats’ desire to raise taxes than climate policy…

And Brandon Housekeeper, a lobbyist on environmental issues for the Association of Washington Business, said the various subsidies and rebates in the legislation only prove the cap-and-trade plan will add costs for businesses.

See also Jerry Cornfield’s account in the Everett Herald. 

It’s unclear whether there’s much momentum behind the alternative proposal. That it’s surfacing at this time suggests how divided the Legislature remains on Day 14 of the 30-day special session.

WA Roundtable says House must move quickly on transportation plan

Washington Roundtable president Steve Mullin writes in the Seattle Times that the state House should quickly adopt the comprehensive transportation package passed by the Senate. 

Under our feet and wheels are some of the poorest quality roads in the United States — the 15th worst in the nation — and it’s costing us.

According to a 2014 report from TRIP, a national transportation research group, deficient roadways cost Washington residents approximately $6.5 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, the cost of lost time and wasted fuel due to traffic congestion and traffic crashes. Everyone is impacted: growers, shippers, manufacturers, commuters and families. Our state must do better.

…With time running short in the current legislative session, it is time for the full House to take action…

The Senate’s $15 billion transportation package relies on an 11.7 cent increase in the state gas tax, phased in over three years. It invests much-needed dollars in the preservation and maintenance of our state’s existing roads and bridges and completes corridors critical to our entire state.

Investing in essential transportation infrastructure is one of Opportunity Washington’s top priorities. Lawmakers have been close before. This is the year to get the job done. 

House Transportation Committee takes up revenue, spending bills tonight

This evening’s House Transportation Committee meeting is expected to set the stage for successful negotiations to resolve the differences between the two chambers approaches to a comprehensive transportation package. There’s a lot of anticipatory media coverage, most of it focusing on what has to happen to close the gap.

Joseph O’Sullivan writes in the Seattle Times that the two sides are pretty close to agreement.

The Democratic plan, which would spend $15.1 billion over 16 years, contains most of the same projects as the GOP proposal and would be financed with a similar, phased-in 11.7-cent boost in the gas tax and higher fees on truck weights and license plates.

Key areas of disagreement: use of sales tax revenues for transportation projects, language to block the governor from implementing low carbon fuel standards, and the size of a Sound Transit ballot measure to fund expanded rail.

As we wrote yesterday, these differences should not be deal killers. O’Sullivan quotes a statement by AWB president Kris Johnson:

…Johnson said, “this represents an important step forward in the effort to pass the state’s first major, statewide transportation package in a decade.”

House Transportation chair Judy Clibborn sounds optimistic in the Times story.

Although the legislative session is scheduled to end April 26, Clibborn said she doesn’t think that deadline will necessarily stop a package from getting approved.

“I think we would go into (an) extra session,” said Clibborn, adding later: “It doesn’t take months to negotiate if you really, really want to do the negotiations.”

Additional coverage from the Puget Sound Regional Council and the Spokane Spokesman-Review

The House package does not rely on revenues from the cap-and-trade proposal boosted by the governor. The News Tribune editorial board says any such plan needs serious vetting.

It’s no surprise that Inslee’s bill didn’t go anywhere this year: The idea of cap-and-trade is a still new to the public. In theory, it is beautiful. It seems bound to produce losers as well as winners, though. Washington needs the details and a realistic accounting of its downsides as well as its virtues.

The Legislature is poised to act on the first major new investment in transportation infrastructure in a decade. There’s no need to complicate that task with consideration of an untested revenue proposal.

House Democrats release transportation package with 11.7 cent gas tax increase

House Democrats today released their proposal for a comprehensive transportation package. Here are the documents, including a quick overview balance sheet.

Jordan Schrader reports:

Democrats who control the state House agree on something with Republicans who run the Senate: Washington should raise the gas tax by 11.7 cents per gallon to pay for transportation projects.

Now both sides of the Legislature have officially committed to a gas tax increase and have cast aside Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s suggestion of funding transportation with charges on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are substantive differences, he writes.

The House doesn’t want to tie Inslee’s hands in creating a green fuel standard for vehicles, as a Senate-passed plan would do.

The Senate also wants to free up money for transportation projects by exempting transportation from sales taxes, and by grabbing money earmarked for cleanup of hazardous waste.

The House omitted both of those shifts…

And so on. But those and other differences are to be expected and can, we hope, be bridged quickly.
 
Also today, an op-ed in the Everett Herald by the state legislative director of the SMART-Transportation Division, a national union of transportation workers, examined potential pitfalls of the governor’s preferred revenue alternative. 
 
Today’s progress is encouraging.

AP: State transportation negotiations begin next week

The Associated Press reports this morning that legislative transportation leaders will begin negotiations next week. The House Transportation Committee heard the Senate proposal March 26 at a meeting filled with supporters of the Senate plan. According to AP, 

…House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said the Senate’s $15 billion transportation revenue package won’t get a vote in the chamber until there is a negotiated agreement.

Clibborn said that the Senate plan is scheduled for a vote out of her committee Tuesday night, and that she expects negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate to begin the next day. She noted that with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, it didn’t make sense to have a protracted debate on the House floor on a plan that still needed to be negotiated and ultimately voted on again.

The Senate transportation leader expresses optimism.

Senate Transportation Committee chair Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he would have liked to have seen the House take an initial vote on the Senate plan, but said he looked forward to working with Clibborn to come to a deal this year, an outcome that has eluded the chambers for the past few sessions.

A comprehensive transportation package is critical this year. As we’ve noted before,

The state has fallen behind on the infrastructure investment that a prosperous future requires. There’s no mistaking the signs. Traffic congestion, particularly in Washington’s urban centers, has slowed the commute. Roads and bridges are deteriorating dangerously. It is past time to invest in the transportation system we have and improve key economic corridors.

How it gets passed is less important than that it gets passed this year. Let the negotiations begin. The consequences of inaction are clear.

PSRC takes closer look at Puget Sound congestion: It’s ugly.

The Puget Sound Regional Council recently released “Stuck in Traffic,” a look at the region’s transportation performance. (The link is to an easy-to-follow slide presentation.)

In The News Tribune, Matt Driscoll has a good overview.  

Despite no real increase in travel — or, in more official terms, the number of vehicle miles traveled — between 2010 and 2013, delays on the region’s freeways increased significantly in both general and high occupancy vehicle lanes, the report says. Delay across the region increased by 25 percent between 2013 and 2014.

He reviews the data and considers implications for the region and for Pierce County, which is beginning to accept more population from the north “as traffic in King County slips into a gridlock hellscape.” Driscoll’s conclusion, though draw from a regional perspective, is true statewide:

Unless we want to spend more and more time reading grim reports such as the one offered up by the regional council, now is the time to build for the future.

For more on state transportation issues, see the Opportunity Washington roadmap for expanding Washington’s culture of opportunity.