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Ferry bills take shape

The Washington State Legislature is taking a hard look at regional transportation funding districts as a piece of the overall transportation puzzle before tackling a 10-year funding package for comprehensive transportation projects across the state.

The Senate and House each have their own regional plan. And while the Senate plan excludes Kitsap County, the House plan offers some promise, giving the county’s legislators an easy choice of which plan to support.

“The (House) bill preserves options and also involves a vote of the cities and county and a vote of the people to fund local projects,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island).

The House plan, prime-sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Ruth Fisher, (D-Tacoma), allows any county to form its own regional transportation district or form alliances with neighboring counties that share similar transportation interests. But the regional bill should not replace statewide funding for the ferry system, Rockefeller said.

The Senate’s version, prime-sponsored by Bellevue Republican Sen. Dan McDonald, calls for uniting King County and either Snohomish and Pierce counties or both into one regional district. The idea is to allow the tri-county jurisdiction to raise funds locally to improve highways of statewide significance, such as State Route 405 or the floating bridges spanning Lake Washington.

Kitsap County was excluded by mutual consent that developed last year – Kitsap lawmakers didn’t want their locally raised dollars to fund superhighway projects in King County. Likewise, the East Side wanted to sidestep the possibility of Kitsap, worried about proper representation, torpedoing a regional funding package.

Even though Kitsap would not be involved directly, local lawmakers are still leary of the Senate package, concerned that any local-option funds authorized in those three counties will diminish their willingness to contribute to statewide needs like the ferry system.

The House version, lawmakers say, could permit Kitsap and King Counties to form an alliance to fund capital improvements to the ferry system without sticking Kitsap County for big highway projects in King County.

Rep. Beverly Woods, (R-Poulsbo), was the only Kitsap lawmaker to vote against Fisher’s bill on the House floor.

The House GOP and Woods wanted to see several changes to the House version, including a provision to strike out the local-option gas-tax increase.

“The amendment would have removed local gas taxes from among the funding options,” Woods said. “Local gas-tax options would be very difficult on local gas station owners because they would have to install virtually new accounting procedures, and we are pushing to impose a gas tax increase statewide anyway.”

Woods also supported an amendment to reorganize the distribution of funds raised in a regional transportation district.

Fisher’s bill calls for allocating 30 percent of the funds in equal portions to the county and cities for more local projects, while submitting 70 percent to the state Department of Transportation and improvement board for regional highway projects.

The two regional-funding measures now go to a joint conference committee for reconciliation.

A regional package, to allow local areas to pay for big-ticket improvements in their areas, is seen as the second step of a three-part approach to the state transportation difficulties.

The first step, a bill to increase efficiencies, has been passed over the objections of House Republicans, who claimed the bill did not go far enough. Gov. Gary Locke has signed the bill.

The final piece is a statewide funding package. Gov. Locke has proposed an $8.5 billion ten-year package that includes, among other things, a phased-in increase in the gasoline tax of 9 cents per gallon.

The statewide funding package appears headed to a vote, possibly as soon as June. The regional funding packages contain language making them effective only if the statewide package is adopted.

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