Credit: WSDOT

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?

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-37

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.”

35 Replies to “Why did green legislators vote to spend carbon taxes on highways?”

  1. Mississippi and Kentucky have the lowest percent of state transportation dollars allocated to transit at 3 and 2 percent respectively.

    The $16 billion program allocates <0.5% to transit, by far the lowest in the nation.

    Our legislature needs to pass a law that prohibits Washington residents from describing themselves as progressive.

    We are an embarrassment.

    1. Just to add insult to injury besides the carbon tax, with is completely ridiculous, the highway package will also be funded by a tax on bicycles!

      We are actually taxing cyclists to pay for highways they can’t use. Only one stated project ($500k in Puyallup) includes accommodations for bike/peds and in reality that project, along with all the other bike/ped projects, is funded through federal bike/ped fund allocations, because the feds actually fund bike/ped projects (even under Trump) unlike our state DOT.

      I don’t think Hobbs has a clue on how transportation funding works and who pays for what. Can we impeach him?

      1. No. Impeachment is for Executie and Judicial Branch officials. Legislators can only be “recalled” and only by their constituents. Legislative bodies can also eject members which triggers a special election as do resignations and deaths.

      2. Basically, we need a Green New Deal type of bill for WA state. It doesn’t need to actually pass*, but it needs to shift the Overton window. This highway bill, with its highway expansion and tax on bicycles, is shifting the Overton window in the wrong direction. I thought better of Saldaña.

        * Though if it did pass, by promising clean energy jobs to suburban/republican areas of the state, that would be amazing!

      3. Voting for bad things does not help good things happen later, and anyone who claims otherwise is using political doublespeak. The idea that Good Policy can happen if the Right People are in office doing their Best Negotiating is bunk. A Green New Deal isn’t going to be won with two steps backward and one step forward, it’ll take a movement of working people.

    2. Inslee had better hope that this carbon-tax-for-highway-expansion is just tactical maneuvering on a bill which will never pass, Otherwise he’d have to veto it or explain to the national media why he’s still the green candidate and serious about stopping the increase of carbon emissions (much less reversing them).

  2. The culvert replacements should not be viewed as highway projects. As far as the cars on the road are concerned, the culverts are just fine. But these culverts do block fish passage, and the replacement is to benefit the fish. It doesn’t make the highways any better.

    1. tax payers shouldn’t be stuck with tab ..the state the culverts in without regards to nature so no way

  3. What’s wrong with putting carbon tax money into highways since all cars will be electric someday? Highways don’t generate emissions, vehicles do.



      “Californians now buy more than half of all EVs sold in the United States, and the state’s auto-pollution policies have provided a model being adopted around the world.

      But they’re not working at home, by the state’s own measure. Tailpipe pollution here is going up, not down, despite billions of dollars spent by one of the most environmentally progressive governments on earth. ”

      And then there’s non-tailpipe emissions.

      1. Gibberish and nonsense from Reuters.

        There are 2 million cars sold per year in California (1/40 of the entire WORLD market — there’s a lot of cars sold in California).

        EV sales have only hit 10% of the total cars sold in California, and that was just last year in 2018.

        There were simply not enough EVs to make a difference in the 2016 data which Reuters was looking at.

        Get new data and you’ll see the impact.

        Obviously, reducing sprawl and building electric trains would help a lot, but the Reuters article is being really misleading by looking at 2016 data, when total California EV sales up to 2016 were around 3% of annual California car sales — of course they weren’t making a difference at that point.

    2. The problem is that while the number of electric vehicles is going up, so is the number of CO2-emitting vehicles. Also, there is the matter of where the electricity for all the chargers is sourced. The biggest knob we can control is capacity for cars. We need a moratorium on new car capacity.

      So, there you are Sam: The best argument for why BRT is better than light rail (so long as the BRT lanes are taking away SOV lanes and/or parking).

      1. Absolute LOL at the idea that new capacity has anything to do with the amount of cars on the road. This region is nowhere near the saturation point where capacity becomes a limitation on VMT or vehicles per capita.

        If CO2 limitation is important, we’d be better off bringing in a feebate system to encourage EV adoption, and increasing rebates to move people off gas furnaces and into heat pumps.

      2. Why do so many of Ron’s points read like like talking points for the road lobby? and not make any sense?

      3. “This region is nowhere near the saturation point where capacity becomes a limitation on VMT or vehicles per capita.”

        Not off-peak or on the back roads, but peak congestion does significantly motivate people to take transit, and I doubt they drive more off-peak to make up for it. Thirty years ago only a tiny percent of people rode the bus to work or when they went to Seattle. My dad drove from Bellevue to Belltown; that was absolutely typical. And whenever we went to Seattle Center or an exhibition at the Kingdome, we drove. Congestion was only at rush hour or on the bridges. (I had a job in Belltown in the early 80s at a company that was looking for a short-term programmer, so I asked my dad’s programmer, an ex-Microsoftie in Redmond, and he said, “Tell them my rate is $20 an hour, or $40 if I have to cross that damn bridge.”) But since then as the population has grown and congestion has gotten worse and spread into much of the day, a lot more are taking transit to work or whenever they go to Seattle who wouldn’t have considered it before. And while sprawl has increased so their VMT may have increased along with it, their bus commutes are still a large chunk of non-VMT that might cancel it out.

      4. And sprawl only changes VMT so much. In the 80s there weren’t people commuting from Auburn and Woodinville to Seattle like there are now, or going from Lake Stevens to Alderwood Mall to shop. But there were a lot of people in Bellevue who drove to Everett Boeing, Renton Boeing, and Kent Boeing, and Southcenter for shopping, and Sea-Tac for flights. And people from all around went to the Kirkland waterfront and Marymoor Park.Those places haven’t moved, so people still drive the same distances to them if they live in the same place. That’s still an extraordinary amount of driving compared to other countries, but it’s not really an increase. In fact there’s also a decrease, as bus service and Link and sounder have gotten better and reached the threshold of viability for some people.

    3. I would also point out: (1) The process of building cars and moving them across the country/world to sell is carbon intensive, regardless of how much less carbon you emit with electric power sources (power that’s still gotta come from somewhere) vs. gasoline. (2) The land use policies and lifestyle which depends on things being far apart and people driving is carbon intensive. These two factors are probably more damaging than the actual fuel you burn. Of course, a related (3) is that production of batteries and related electrical components is very damaging to the environment in ways that go beyond carbon emissions — like strip mining for rare earth materials. Unfortunately, electric vs. gasoline is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of our cars on the environment.

      1. The amount of rare earth metals in EVs is steadily declining. Always boggles my mind when ostensible environmentalists have been taken in so thoroughly by oil industry propaganda.

        The real issue: there were 300,000 new vehicles sold in the state last year. There will be about the same this year. 90% are fossil powered, and they’ll be on the road an average of 13 years. Any meaningful climate action needs to flip that percentage to 90% EV/PHEV ASAP.

      2. Using one strategy as a reason not to do other strategies is easily detectable misdirection. Yes, we should be pushing electric cars, but we should also be halting increases in road capacity, investing in transit, taxing carbon for *carbon-negative* projects, and adopting a clean fuel standards. Remind me again who is pushing oil industry propaganda on this thread.

      3. I’ve heard that much of the carbon emissions of a building are in the construction, and that has been raised as an issue with tearing down buildings to replace them with more efficient onces. How much of a car’s emissions come from construction and delivery? Maybe not as much because the ongoing gas-burning is humongous. But maybe that’s because we consider operational gasoline as an intrinsic part of the car, so we count it as car emissions. But we don’t think of a building’s heating and air-conditioning fuel the same way: we don’t think of it as part of the building, but as a lifestyle option for the occupants. But maybe it is part of the building the way gasoline is part of a car. Because a building’s efficiency certainly affects how much energy it takes to heat/cool it. In complete passivhaus constructions, the efficiency is so high that they don’t even need a heater or air conditioner installed, or if they have it it’s only used occasionally. That certainly is a case of efficiency affecting energy use, the same way a car’s efficiency affects its gasoline use. So again, how much of a car’s emissions are in its construction and delivery? The environmentalist articles and news media never address that at all.

      4. There are worrying signs that some of the measures being taken to decrease emissions are actually increasing emissions. This includes the switch from coal-fired generators to natural gas generators, the rise of electric cars, the replacement of buildings, the advances in home/mobile computing devices (people are getting more of them), etc. In some cases energy use per capita has remained flat or declined, as Seattle City Light says, but in other cases it has increased or unanticipated emissions are being discovered (that weren’t properly accounted for). The world has really not come to terms with that yet. All the focus is on the traditional known emissions, not on the unintended consequences of making technology more convenient or switching to a clearner but possibly more potent emitter, etc. The best strategy is still “reduce, reuse, recycle”, with the most emphasis on the first rather than the last. I’ve also been impressed with the “zero-waste” strategy first popularzed by Amory Lovins in Natural Capitalism (full text online). That’s the idea of, in a manufacturing process or construction process, finding a use or market for every byproduct formerly known as “waste”, a kind of win-win situation.

      5. In several of these cases, it’s been analyzed, Mike. An electric car makes up its “construction emissions deficit” versus an existing gasoline car in less than 30,000 miles, or less than 3 years. I don’t have the citations to hand, but if you do your research, you should be able to find them.

        Obviously, it’s better to take the train. But for EVs, the answer is clear: if you’re going to be driving a car anyway, scrap your gas car and get an EV. Unless you drive a really really small amount per year.

        The switch from coal generators to NG generators has also reduced emissions, and this is not disputed. If the NG is generated by extremely wasteful and irresponsible fracking, however, then it may be *almost* as bad as coal.

      6. The concern is that natural gas leaks methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. When I said increased emissions I really ment increased total global-warming impact.

    4. “Highways don’t generate emissions, vehicles do.”

      Actually, there’s a lot of emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete.

      1. If highways are made partially of concrete, then they certainly have made major carbon emissions before one vehicle has travelled on them.

  4. State money funds HOT projects, right?

    Could we have a 30+ HOT lane that automatically tolls anyone not in a registered 30+ seat vehicle $500 for each occurrence, and then use state gas tax money?

    1. HOT lanes are supposed to pay for themselves, mostly. And then they add new lanes rather than convert existing lanes. So, our emissions go up. Not good.

  5. Reading through the package I don’t think this characterization is fair. It includes for example the electrification of our ferry system and funds all of the court manadated culvert restoration. I don’t think it’s fair to consider that roads. Those very much are efforts with direct environmental benefits. There are hundreds of millions for electrification. Yes, that may support single occupancy cars – but so would a low carbon fuel standard. How is an LCFS more consistent with multimodal? That doesn’t make sense. The carbon tax brings in around 7 billion, and there is at least 7 billion in non roads projects, so the premise that the carbon tax funds roads is wrong.

  6. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a successful push to take on where HOT funds go. The Bay Area has been able to raise tolls and transfer the subsequent revenue’s control to the region by referendum. Even a statewide referendum to allow a regional agency to have a referendum to collect up to a $1 or $2 additional toll may pass — as it could be pitched to Eastern Washington as not impacting them.

    To that end, it may be possible to set that up in Clark County too, as getting the CRC project underway seems to be a local priority there.

    1. Any tolling will be doe by Oregon, which owns both bridges and plans to Congestion Toll I-5 through North Portland.

      It’s gonna get expensive for people insist on driving alone.

  7. Why cant transit and rail be part of state transportation bill, Eastern WA can use it for highways and Western WA can use some to fund transit and rail? How does Eastern Washington have so much influence and its not like they cant use transit and rail themselves in Eastern WA?

    I’m thinking more and more that states are worthless entities… nothing more than random lines drawn on a map 200 years ago, those antiquated boundaries have no concern for real world economic, social, and environment regions that are logical boundaries and political entities. East of the Cascades is clearly its own entity, we have more in common with Portland and the Willamette Valley. Mountain ranges divide people, not rivers. The Sound Transit district is actually a logical region and boundary that reflects a natural economic and social area (Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma-Everett metropolitan area).

  8. Garbage like this is why I don’t vote straight Democrat. Also why some fools fall for Tim Eyman’s viruses of initiatives, sometimes there is bad AND a true worse.

    Maybe if we had a Washington State Transit Association that would firmly stand up FOR transit, we wouldn’t have this keep happening. Maybe if we had voters who would hold forums just about transit and be transit voters and show up transit agencies’ public outreaches to show we care more than the NIMBYs and public comment trolls; we’d get more pro-transit legislators who wouldn’t stand for this garbage junk legislation.


    The point being: We have to care and not just online in social media, but in person. Period.

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