Regional transportation plan takes shape

The Washington State Legislature is closer than ever before to ironing out a workable plan designed to form regional transportation funding districts that could benefit Kitsap County.

A regional transportation plan is the last piece to the overall transportation puzzle remaining in Olympia, outside of securing a 10-year funding package for comprehensive transportation projects across the state.

Gov. Gary Locke already signed into law an efficiencies bill, considered the first piece to the big transportation picture.

Both the Senate and House have approved their regional funding plans and now it’s up to a cadre of key lawmakers to cobble together a regional transportation compromise that’s palatable to both Republicans and Democrats in both chambers as well as the governor.

If negotiations are left solely to Kitsap lawmakers, they’d heavily lobby in favor of retaining the House version, prime-sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma.

They say her idea is most flexible and could directly address Kitsap County’s unique transportation needs in the years to come.

“The House plan would provide Kitsap County with the flexibility to deal with local transportation problems with local funds,” Rep. Brock Jackley, D-Manchester said. “Funds could be generated for roads, ferries, buses. Funds raised in the county would stay in the county.

“The Senate bill totally ignores Kitsap,” Jackley said.

Local lawmakers largely agree Kitsap could directly benefit from a regional transportation plan, whatever the specific makeup — particularly so long as the state doesn’t forgo providing a longterm funding solution for Washington State Ferries.

“We are a part of one Washington,” Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, said. “We depend on statewide support.”

“The House regional plan is designed to supplement, not supplant, state funding for ferries,” Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island said of Fisher’s bill. “The bill preserves options and also involves a vote of the cities and county and a vote of the people to fund local projects.”

But the devil is in the details.

In this case, in the negotiation process that has yet to commence as of Monday.

The Senate’s version, prime-sponsored by Bellevue Republican Sen. Dan McDonald, worries most Kitsap lawmakers.

The measure 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 Senators Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, all voted against the plan, primarily because it completely ignored Kitsap County and its unique needs.

“Ferries are not considered highways of statewide significance in the Senate bill,” said the 35th District’s Sheldon, who didn’t vote for McDonald’s version. “Ferries are significant because they carry freight and tourists.”

Sheldon said he’s all for a regional planning district, so long as those jurisdictions don’t drain transportation funding from the statewide pot in the form of local “matching grant” programs.

Besides, both Sheldon and Oke are irked that the Senate’s version addresses all of Pierce County, even that to the west of the existing Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

They wanted to at least amend the Senate version to exclude that portion of Pierce County from the mix. If a second bridge over the Tacoma Narrows is constructed, local lawmakers don’t want to double tax those constituents with tolls and possibly additional local option taxes.

“If the Senate bill just says Pierce County, including that section that’s west of the Narrows Bridge and we are paying tolls, we’d be taxed without adequate representation,” Lantz said.

Put another way, there would be little incentive for that particular area to join such a jurisdiction and approve additional local taxes if residents are already paying tolls.

“The opt-in and opt-out provision in the Senate bill isn’t a solution for Pierce because it would involve the entire county” and not that particular area, Lantz said.

Although Oke doesn’t want his constituents “double taxed,” he is pleased tolls are currently listed as a local funding option under both bills.

“Tolls are the truth, and people need to start hearing the truth,” Oke said. “We needs tolls to pay for projects. The reality of next year’s budget dictates that.”

Senate Majority Floor leader Betti Sheldon said the House version is just much more flexible because it allows any county to form its own regional transportation district or form alliances with neighboring counties that share similar transportation interests.

“The House bill is much better for Kitsap County because it’s broader,” Sheldon said. “The Senate bill only pinpoints the issues facing the East side of Puget Sound.”

The House version, lawmakers say, still recognizes the possibility of Kitsap and King County forming a specific alliance to fund capital improvements to the ferry system.

On the other hand, that alliance under the House bill wouldn’t necessarily mean Kitsap County constituents would get billed for big highway projects in King County.

“It’s all contractual, and counties have the ability to develop unique plans,” Lantz said. “We really do need to integrate with the rest of the West Sound.”

By late last year, lawmakers realized a regional bill explicitly linking Kitsap County to the other three Puget Sound counties wouldn’t survive the process.

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.

Rep. Beverly Woods, a Republican from 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.

A GOP sponsored amendment would have increased to 90 percent the portion allocated to the DOT.

"This bill is just too open-ended, because it would pull money away from construction and put it toward operations and maintenance and preservation, plus give 30 percent to counties and cities for smaller projects. Is that really going to help people get out of gridlock,” Woods wondered.

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