CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 9: Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-WA), Transportation Committee Chair

State transportation funding was another focus at July’s CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon.  Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-WA) was among the speakers at the academy’s concluding roundtable discussion on July 20. Clibborn is the Chair of the Transportation Committee in the Washington House of Representatives and the co-chair of CSG’s Transportation Public Policy Committee.  She spoke about Washington state’s pursuit of transportation revenues over the last decade and this year’s failure of a transportation funding package, which would have helped pay for a long-in-the-works bridge project.

Clibborn recalled that reforms suggested by a 2002 Blue Ribbon Commission helped pave the way for new revenues for transportation a decade ago.

“We went out and passed in two years—2003 and 2005—the first time a nickel gas tax raise and the second time a nine-and-a-half cent gas tax raise,” she said.

But Clibborn said even at that time there was a realization that statewide funding sources for transportation were problematic.

“Portland is (to Oregon) like the Central Puget Sound Region is to our state. There is a high-density, high need area of the state and it absorbs a lot of the revenue. … One of the things that the Blue Ribbon Commission said is the Central Puget Sound Region needs to come up with its own way of augmenting statewide dollars. We can’t just go out and get statewide dollars and I think that’s a concept that we’ve struggled with but it continues to feed into why we have tolling because there is the density in the Central Puget Sound. We did try to get money raised different ways … which were not successful—different kinds of taxes. So now we’re talking about tolling on all the projects in the Central Puget Sound. There is an additional revenue stream that goes into the statewide dollars that are being spent that helps subsidize the Central Puget Sound projects.”

It was also starting a decade ago that the seeds were sown for the situation that Washington state now finds itself in, Clibborn said.

“The other thing about those two packages (the 2003 and 2005 gas tax increases) is they were totally bonded. If I knew I was going to be the (House Transportation Committee) Chair 10 years later, I probably would have been more sensitive to that. But as a freshman (legislator in 2003), I just thought it was great that we got 400 projects. We paid for the tunnel that is being built under Seattle, the deep-bore tunnel. We paid for new ferries. We paid for a number of large projects—most of the new floating bridge, at least the dangerous part, is being replaced with those gas taxes. But as that went forward, and as we come now to 2015, our gas tax that we voted for isn’t paying off debt service. So what do you say to the citizen who knows that when they go to the gas pump they are paying all this gas tax (and) they have no clue that they’re not going to get any more projects, that they’re going to be paying debt service?”

In the 2013 legislative session, Clibborn supported legislation that would have again increased revenues to avoid an impending fiscal cliff two years down the road.

“We had this huge group of stakeholders that were so supportive,” she said. “We had labor and we had, for the first time, the Association of Washington Businesses support an increase of 10.5 cents in gas tax. That takes us almost to 50 cents. We would be at 47 cents. … And we had the environmental community there because we had a balanced package. And the size of that package was never at odds. It was how you spent it that became the issue around it. I find that fascinating because we started out lower and it just kept going up as people saw the need.”

Ultimately, the Washington Senate decided not to take up the legislation and the legislature adjourned without considering the package.  

“I think that we have patched ourselves through with a budget that will get us to 2015. It has no new projects in it. We have still ongoing projects paid for. What we were trying to do (in the 2013 session) is get ahead of the curve. We were trying to say ‘in two years in 2015, there will be no more new projects. There will be no more money to run the ferry system.' Up until (then) we can patch and transfer over money to our ferry system. … But when we get to 2016, we will have to start cutting ferry runs and for the people who live on the peninsula, that is their marine highway. … If we don’t get this done, the outcry that will occur will be like a bridge going down.”

Speaking of bridges, one casualty of the package’s demise and one of the focal points for the opposition to it was a new bridge span over the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, which had been planned for 20 years.

“It was ready to go and it would have connected Vancouver (WA) across the bridge with light rail. It would be tolled. And on this side (of the river) you have a culture that is very bus oriented … and a lot of people in Vancouver actually work in Portland so they drive across that bridge all the time. It is the last lift bridge on I-5. It has huge delays when the bridge goes up so it’s a big bottleneck. And what happened is the people who are politically on the other side of the bridge fought the light rail (component included in the bridge design). … I think if we had talked about freight there would have been a difference in the attitude because nobody came forward. The fight was about putting light rail on the bridge and if you take the light rail off, you lose the federal dollars because they were transit dollars.”

“So we tried to pass this package. On the last day of session it did not go through the Senate. It made it out of the House. By the way, the House didn’t have a problem with the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) bridge so it really was a couple of members in the Senate. I think that the timing for federal dollars means that that bridge will have to start over. I can’t imagine the federal dollars are going to still be there if we get something done even later this interim. The impact of having the package die was such that the Senate recognized that that was a pretty big deal. It sort of landed in their lap and they didn’t get it out. So they’re now talking about working in the interim and coming back in December and maybe voting on the package. But they will not be voting on the CRC. The CRC will not be a part of that package. So it’s kind of an interesting thing about how you make those trade-offs. If we had seen that was going to be the war, maybe we would have done some things differently, but it wasn’t obvious as we put the package together that that was what all of the fight was going to be about.”

Clibborn said her efforts to pass a transportation funding package this year were also complicated by a shortfall in the General Fund.

“The transportation budget is completely separate from the General Fund,” she said. “There is no sales tax that goes in there. It is completely funded by the gas tax, weight fees and our own revenues. … We had a court order that we need to put more money into education. So on my side it was nobody wanted to do the transportation (bill) until they got education funding. It was called ‘kids before concrete.’ So then when we got (the transportation package) out it was kind of late (in the session) and now we were trying to do everything.

Despite the package’s failure, Clibborn said the process was successful in educating lawmakers about the importance of getting something done on transportation and about the interconnectedness of the state’s transportation system.

“When you have hay coming across on I-90 into the port that’s in Seattle and you hit a bottleneck of congestion in my district in suburban Bellevue and you can’t make the ship, that’s eastern Washington, that’s the (agriculture) and they can’t get there. So (eastern Washington lawmakers are now) saying it’s okay to put that investment into the Central Puget Sound Region as long as it’s freight-connected, as long as it’s about connecting of those corridors. So connecting it to what’s important across the state and how you may have to spend more in one area but doesn’t it benefit everyone. I think those are the key parts that made us actually have some sort of connection. … I don’t think you can do it without the stakeholders. I think it’s much easier to get everybody to identify their priorities. The stakeholder process is really important. It does work for us. It just didn’t quite work this time.”

Additional Resources

“Pennsylvania, Washington Transportation Bills Fail to Cross Finish Line,” CSG Blog Post, July 1, 2013

Further Reading

"Washington and Oregon Cities Try to Evade Political Jam to Build a Bridge," The New York Times, July 16, 2013

"Transportation is focal point heading toward 2014 session," The (Everett) Herald, July 9, 2013