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Published on Monday, February 23, 2015

Senate transportation package passes out of committee

The Senate Transportation Committee passed out a transportation package Thursday, February 19. The word is we may see something passed off the Senate floor later this week. The next step will be for the House to develop their proposal and then negotiations between the chambers would begin.

This fast pace out of the Senate does not mean that the House will act at the same speed. While a transportation package is a big priority for House Democrats, there are also a significant number of members of their Caucus that believe they should determine how they will fulfill the state’s obligation to fund basic education under the McCleary case before they turn to the state’s infrastructure needs. They call this viewpoint “kids before concrete.” Late last week House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan was quoted in the press as confirming this approach.

This means that the details of a transportation package are far from being solidified. It does, however, give cities time to request some changes in the package. While the bipartisan Senate package is a great start and has a lot to like, there are some provisions that AWC would like to see modified. Those are discussed in greater detail below.

Funding sources in the package include an increase of gas tax by 11.7 cents over 3 years (5 cents first year, 4.2 cents second year, 2.5 cents third year), an increase in various vehicle weight fees, an increase in other motor vehicle fees, and transfers from other funds.

More details are available in this balance sheet and in the bills themselves, SB 5987, SB 5988, and SB 5989. You can find project lists here. The bills are also moving with eight reform bills.

The revenues are directed at a variety of projects and programs. Those of particular interest to cities include:

  • A direct distribution of $140 million over 16 years to cities;
  • $54 million over 16 years for the Transportation Improvement Board (TIB);
  • $160 million over 16 years for the Complete Streets Grant Program, grants to cities for street retrofit projects that provide safety and usability improvements for pedestrians and cyclists;
  • $56 million over 16 years for the Safe Routes to Schools Program;
  • $50 million over 16 years for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Grant Program; and
  • $125 million over 16 years for the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board.

The proposal includes an increase in Transportation Benefit District (TBD) councilmanic authority for vehicle fees from $20 to $40, if a $20 fee has been in effect for at least 24 months. Authority for the third phase of Sound Transit (commonly referred to as “ST3”) is also included.

While AWC is very supportive of this first step, as we have worked through the details of this complicated proposal, we have identified concerns about specific elements.

Direct distribution

This package gives none of the new gas tax to cities for maintenance and preservation, rather it would give a direct distribution of funds from a newly created multimodal account to cities and counties. Unfortunately, the amount directed to cities is based upon a split with the counties that does not reflect the growth in incorporated population and lane miles in the last 20 years. Under the Senate proposal, of the $375 million direct distribution to local governments over 16 years, counties would get 63% and cities 37%. This is on top of the fact that the proportion of the gas tax being distributed to local governments has been declining since 2002 (see the chart on the bottom right of this fact sheet).

Transportation Improvement Board

In 2012 an increase in certain motor vehicle fees provided additional funding for TIB for three years. This allowed TIB to establish the Arterial Preservation Program (preservation assistance for mid-sized cities with lower property values); to increase capacity of the Small City Preservation Program; and to do a pilot project for a handful of small cities to replace their street lights with LED (saving these cities money and providing environmental benefits).

Under the current proposal, there are no new funds for TIB and the 2012 fees are only partially dedicated to TIB. This will mean cutting one of the preservation programs and not expanding the LED pilot. TIB is an important source of funds for city street projects and preservation. AWC would ask that a transportation revenue package:

  1. Continue to dedicate the 2012 fees to the preservation programs and the continuation of the LED program past the pilot stage;
  2. Increase funds for TIB to allow for more major project grants.

Local options

We are very appreciative of the increased TBD authority included in the bill. We would appreciate that it include provisions of AWC priority bills HB 1593/SB 5813 and HB 1757, which include increased vehicle license fee authority to $50 and some provisions that ease administration of TBDs.

Transportation Benefit Districts have become the de facto dedicated transportation source for many cities and can be a major help in addressing local maintenance and preservation backlogs.

ELSA reform bill

SB 5991 redirects 20 percent of Environmental Legacy Stewardship Account (ELSA) funds for state stormwater and fish culvert projects. ELSA funds are already oversubscribed and local governments have equal access to these funds. Local governments are under the same regulatory requirements in regards to stormwater so the loss of access to part of these funds is concerning.

Under current law, local governments with certain state highways running through their communities are authorized to charge WSDOT only 30% of the rate we would charge any other property. Addressing stormwater run-off from state facilities like I-5 and I-405 has the effect of driving the cost of treatment of impacts to local residents and businesses who, because of WSDOT’s reduced financial responsibility, are faced with paying for both their own impacts and 70 percent of the state’s.

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