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I-5 collapse brings roads legislation into sharp focus

Not long after an earthquake dislodged chunks of concrete from the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, state lawmakers pushed through a nickel increase in the gas tax.

Now, with jarring images of twisted steel and submerged vehicles from Thursday’s bridge collapse fresh in the public’s mind, another group of lawmakers is trying to raise billions of dollars for transportation with a 10-cent increase.

They hope miles of backups and piles of lost income caused by the severing of the state’s signature north-south highway will dissolve the political gridlock that’s lingered for weeks.

“It is not a scare tactic,” said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, a co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Things cost money to fix. We need to make sure every damn bridge in this state stays safe. I don’t want anyone to think twice when they are going over a bridge.”

Opponents aren’t wavering. They say no amount of gas tax increase or added spending could have prevented what occurred in the Skagit River.

“I don’t see this having any impact on the possibility of this revenue package,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who is the other co-chair of the transportation panel. “I don’t see the connection.”

Democratic lawmakers, including Gov. Jay Inslee, backed by a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups are lined up behind the proposal to raise $8.4 billion primarily with a phased-in gas tax hike totaling 10 cents and higher vehicle fees.

It’s been stalled and not received a vote in either chamber.

Most Republicans in the House and Senate oppose the package. In general, they don’t like the gas tax hike, think too many of the dollars are steered into new projects and want reforms added in that will curb costs and speed up construction.

Then there’s the sticky wicket of building a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. Democrats and Inslee want it constructed with light rail -- which will enable the state to receive federal funds -- and the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition insists that light rail not be included.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said Thursday’s event “does bring the revenue package to the forefront. I don’t think it can be ignored this session.”

She said she hopes it will refocus lawmakers’ attention on the vulnerabilities of Washington’s transportation system rather than the price tag and specific content of the package.

“You would think so. The Columbia River Crossing is not a bridge built in 1955,” she said referring to the bridge damaged Thursday. “It is a bridge built in 1917. It has wooden pilings. It should raise some awareness in the minds of people and should get them to want to move forward.”

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, who serves on the transportation committee, said what happened in his district “highlights the age of our infrastructure. Whether it is a 50-year-old ferry or a 50-year-old bridge, steel has a shelf life, and it may be functional but it is obsolete.”

Opponents contend the incident should spur lawmakers to rethink how every existing transportation dollar is spent before looking to raise more. “It is disturbing looking at the cars in the water and thinking about how close those people were to losing their lives,” said Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, who visited the site Friday. “I don’t think this is a reason to call for increasing the tax burden on our citizens and small businesses.”

And they said the $911 million earmarked in the proposal for preserving and repairing existing roads, bridges and other transportation facilities is too small an amount.

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, said he’s never been an “absolute no” on a revenue package but voted against the version passed by the House Transportation Committee in the regular session because it lacked reforms to curb the costs and speed up the pace of construction.

“It is not going to necessarily change my views,” he said. “I don’t think it should change the conversation at all regardless.”

State lawmakers are midway through what is expected to be a 30-day special session. As of May 26, there have been no hearings or votes planned, but the transportation committee leaders expect they will occur.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, who is a vice-chairman of the House Transportation Committee stated:  “The lesson of (Thursday) is you never know when a freak accident or unfortunate circumstance happens. When we know something is deficient we should do something to correct the situation.”

Already opposing political forces on the issue are twisting the situation to favor their view.

“We are thankful that no one died in the I-5 bridge collapse,” began a statement issued Friday by Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson. “But this is a sober reminder of the need for a transportation revenue package.

“Over 750 bridges in our state are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. We need to invest in our infrastructure, including the Columbia River Crossing, now. Partisan bickering over bills in the legislature needs to stop,” he said.

Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, said the bridge collapse exposed the weakness in the proposal.

“The terrifying event should shed light on all that is wrong with the House Democrats’ transportation package that is supported by Governor Inslee,” he said in a statement.

He said only 10 percent of the revenue is earmarked for maintenance and “only a small portion of that goes towards actually fixing our failing roads and bridges. That is unacceptable.”

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