Green, pro-transit legislators like Senator Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) drew criticism from their allies when they voted last week in favor of a committee bill to implement a carbon pricing program—and spend its revenues on emissions-generating highway projects.
However, it’s not that simple, according to Saldaña. She says that voting for highway projects now creates the chance for more state funding of transit projects later.
Saldaña, the vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said on Tuesday that she doesn’t actually support enacting the proposed laws, SBs 5970, 5971 and 5972. Saldaña that she does not expect the bills to get real consideration on the floor, much less pass.
“Right now, there’s just no way if it came to the floor in the condition it is, there’s just no way I could support it,” Saldaña said.
Indeed, actually supporting the bill would have contradicted Saldaña’s political identity. She was one of the architects of I-1631, last year’s unsuccessful carbon fee and proto-Green New Deal initiative, and a longtime climate activist. So why vote for the bills?
Saldaña said that it’s to lay the groundwork for a multimodal transit package in a couple years. Saldaña co-sponsored the package to demonstrate to more centrist colleagues, like Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs, that she’s a team player. She thinks that will pay dividends when she returns with a greener, more multimodal proposal in the next session. After all, new policy takes a long time to move through the Legislature.
“Normally, it’s a three, four year long conversation to get everybody comfortable with voting on with what is funded and how it’s funded,” said Bryce Yadon in a conversation about the transportation package. Yadon is an environmental wonk who lobbies in Olympia for Futurewise and Transportation Choices Coalition. He says Oly taught him patience.
“It’s funny for me. I have a bill—” HB 1544, which would prevent certain sprawl violations of the Growth Management act “—that I’m trying to get out that I have worked on for five years, and my predecessor worked on it for five years before I started working for Futurewise. It’s a ten year old bill, and I might get it this year. That’s how long it takes—this place is meant to fail bills.”
So co-sponsorships of the bills by Saldaña, and other pro-transit legislators like Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), are actually in service of a multimodal transportation package that might come next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that one.
Forward progress on anything in Olympia requires a bill to dominate the zeitgeist of a session. Legislators need to have an issue front of mind before, during, and at the end of a session—with sustained attention from the press or governor—before anything can happen.
Even then, important issues can stall for years. The McCleary education funding debacle took six years to resolve, despite being the most talked about issue during each intervening session. (The problem also still may not be fixed.)
Advocates need to focus on one issue in their area to get anything done. Carbon pricing doesn’t have a real chance of passing this session. So climate-focused Democrats are working on passing a renewable fuel standard this session instead, since it has a better chance of making it to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk intact. At writing, the bill, HB 1110, has passed the House.
2019’s transportation discussion, meanwhile, is mainly oriented towards funding WSDOT and the state’s existing local outlays. As with other odd-numbered years, the biennial budget is the focus of the entire Legislature’s work. Capital projects and other ambitious policy usually doesn’t have much chance during budget sessions.
Still, Saldaña saw an opportunity to start work on the next transportation package this year. She hopes to have a greener, more multimodal program than the last, which was mainly about roads and highways. When it did address some transit and climate issues, it was counterproductive or begrudging.
The 2015 package included the infamous “poison pill” provision that prevented the state from enacting a renewable fuel standard in the first place. The best thing it did, from an STB perspective, was include the authorization for Sound Transit 3—though some of the local Sound Transit tax paid by King, Snohomish, and Pierce County was hijacked for, effectively, highway construction.
“If we could get [the renewable fuel standard] passed, that would really, I think, begin to shift and be the starting point for building the political will for a transportation package,” Saldaña said. “It’s the best chance it’s had in a long time. All of our past transportation packages really built on stalling that from happening. People are very fearful of what [the fuel standard] would mean.”
Saldaña hopes that, if the renewable fuel standard passes, legislators will grow more comfortable with climate policy, and eventually support more multimodal projects in the next transportation package.
That’s tricky, for an old reason. The 18th Amendment to the state constitution has generally been interpreted by legislators to prohibit spending gas tax revenues on transit projects except for the state ferry system.
There’s talk of using a new revenue source—a “transportation assessment fee”—to generate transportation revenue not restricted by the 18th Amendment. That hypothetical, which could be part of the funding for the next package, would tax new construction projects according to their impact on the existing system and generated demand for new service, in the same way that some utility work, like sewer connections, is currently funded. A draft version of that fee is part of SB 5971.
On the spending side, Yadon thinks that the new Democratic majority may be willing to spend gas tax revenue on bus mobility projects like signal priority, queue jumps, and bus lanes. Saldaña suggests that major highway projects could feature transit benefits. As an example, she raised the old hope that a new I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver would carry a MAX light rail extension or BRT.
Of course, the last serious attempt to fund a new Columbia River bridge was killed by conservative legislators who categorically opposed light rail, citing the 18th Amendment. Though Democrats now control the Senate, where the last bill died, there’s still no guarantee that centrist or suburban Democrats will vote in favor of light rail-friendly projects in Seattle or Vancouver.
Part of being a team player also involves highway maintenance. Saldaña said she’s part of the group working on a new Columbia River span, a replacement for the trestle of US 2 near Everett, and statewide refurbishment and replacement of highway culverts—though she framed the bridge replacements as opportunities for high-capacity transit, and the culverts as essential for improving water quality and the health of Puget Sound.
If those projects do make their way into a more multimodal transportation package in the next session, it would be surprising. Things don’t usually move that fast in Olympia.
After our initial conversation, I asked Yadon about the status of his anti-sprawl bill, pointing out that it was nearly middle school age.
“It died,” Yadon said with a laugh. “Maybe when it can vote it will pass.”