Senators balance transportation budget despite revenue shortfall caused by I-976 | 2020 Legislative Session

OLYMPIA – Facing a shortfall of $450 million, lawmakers patched together a budget to fund highway maintenance, the Washington State Patrol and other transportation projects.

The Senate Transportation Committee developed a proposed transportation budget that would maintain short-term stability following the revenue shortfall caused by the passage of I-976 — the $30 car tab initiative.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said assembling this budget through the revenue crisis required more bipartisan cooperation than in most years. He said the committee prioritized allocations to protect the most vulnerable populations and communities by preserving mass transit programs, unpausing projects that were put on hold and funding safety and maintenance measures.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima said transfers had to be made to move funds from different accounts in order to support things like highway maintenance and the Washington State Patrol.

Hobbs said unspent money from programs and paused or delayed projects was used to support other urgent transportation needs in what he called an “assumed underrun strategy,” but Hobbs said this strategy can only be used once, as it is not sustainable.

“We made this work because we did things we would not normally do to get us through this biennium,” said King. “When you wanna talk about the hurt and the things that are going to happen, they are going to happen in the next biennium.” The next two-year budget will begin in 2022.

Curtis said in the future the committee will have to consider new ways to bring in revenue and ways to find savings to achieve stability and sustainability in future budgets.

Hobbs said managing the degradation and preservation of roads and highways in the state will be a pressing need in the future and new revenues will be needed.

“We need to come up with a fair system to have our roads maintained,” Hobbs said.

He said he was in favor of implementing a road usage charge, which would tax vehicles based on the amount of miles driven, for electric vehicles who use the roads but do not have to pay gas tax.

The road usage charge could potentially be implemented to phase out the current gas tax completely for all vehicles as the state’s motor vehicles become less reliant on gasoline and gas tax revenues decrease, but King said he has concerns with the price to collect the road usage tax.

King estimated the road usage charge could cost up to 15 percent of its revenue to collect, compared to the gas tax which he said currently costs less than 1 percent to collect.

Hobbs also proposed a “Forward Washington,” transportation package. He says the details of that plan are not yet concrete but would likely include a gas tax as well as a carbon-fee mechanism.

Hobbs said his “Forward Washington,” package would fund maintenance and safety programs, reduce carbon pollution and address the government’s obligation to fix road-obstructed fish habitat.

The proposed transportation budget was passed to the Senate Rules Committee for a reading last week before a chance for a Senate floor vote.

Cameron Sheppard is a reporter with the WNPA News Service.