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State Senate Releases $4.3B Transportation Plan in Wash.

Mon April 27, 2009 - West Edition

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) State senators unveiled a $4.3 billion transportation plan March 25 that would continue paying for several of the state’s highway mega-projects and purchase four ferries while shelving 31 projects that rely on dwindling gas tax revenue.

The Senate’s Democratic and Republican transportation leaders also called for a study of new ways to bankroll highways, bridges and ferries in the future, as high-efficiency cars and periodically high pump prices drive down state gas tax collections. Various kinds of tolling seemed to be early favorites.

Under the Senate’s proposed transportation budget, a half-dozen major highway projects would continue drawing money based on the project list developed last year. They include the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, the State Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington, and the State Route 395 North Spokane Corridor.

Some of the policy details of those mega-projects still aren’t settled. For instance, the earthquake-damaged viaduct may be replaced by a tunnel, but that decision still hasn’t been totally finalized. What exactly to do about the 520 bridge is still not fully resolved.

“I really probably shouldn’t say this, but I hope those people building those mega-projects would make some decisions and move forward, because the Legislature’s only going to have so much patience,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. “We’re really delighted that a decision has been made on the viaduct. We hope it can be made on 520 also.”

The Senate plan also continues paying for about 400 other projects, but the original 16-year gas tax-financed construction plan is now short about $6 billion, due to dropping tax revenue and construction cost inflation, officials said.

That means the money for new projects is now projected to run out in 2015, putting 31 more planned highway projects on a list to be “delayed” pending a new source of money.

“You’ll see in this budget, we’re not able to fully fund any new transportation construction after 2015,” Haugen said.

Examples of the newly shuttered projects were transit and car pool lane improvements to Interstate 90 between Seattle and Bellevue, and a proposed “cross-base” highway in the Tacoma area. That list could change in the future, though, transportation leaders said.

Underlying the newly delayed projects are another 19 that won’t be built before money from the nickel and 9.5-cent gas-tax plans expire. Those 19 projects were outside the budget horizon as of last year’s supplemental transportation budget, officials said.

Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, predicted discord in the Legislature now that more gas-tax projects are being delayed. Many lawmakers took a potentially unpopular vote based on their areas getting projects under the plan, he said, but now may have “nothing to show for it.”

“I think there will be some opposition on both sides,” he said.

On the positive side, officials said they would pay for four new 64-car ferries, assume no more than a 2.5 percent fare increase and provide operating money for all ferry routes.

Ferry riders, however, may have to pay a new fuel surcharge to help buoy the system’s operating budget when the price of diesel spikes, lawmakers said.

The House will release its transportation plan next, and the two sides will hash out their differences before the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment in late April.

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