Pennsylvania, Washington Transportation Bills Fail to Cross Finish Line

Lawmakers in Olympia adjourned for the year Saturday as the Washington state Senate failed to take up a $10 billion transportation package. Meanwhile in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania lawmakers couldn’t complete work on a $2 billion transportation bill in advance of a budget deadline and the start of their annual summer break. Here’s a look at what happened in both states and what the future may hold.

Republican Opposition Dooms Gas Tax Increase, Bridge Crossing in Washington

Despite intense lobbying from business groups and Gov. Jay Inslee, the Washington state Senate declined to take up the $10 billion transportation package which included a 10.5 cent increase in the gas tax to pay for a series of large projects including a replacement I-5 bridge over the Columbia River into Oregon, the Associated Press reported.

Senate Republicans opposed the new bridge, contending its design made it too low and too costly and objecting to the inclusion of light rail transit in the project.

The legislature’s adjournment without approving the package appeared to doom the bridge project. Oregon already approved its $450 million portion of the funding plan for the project but without Washington’s portion, it was unlikely that $850 million in matching federal funds would be forthcoming.

Both states’ governors said Saturday that they would pull the plug on the project, The Columbian reported. Inslee plans to meet with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and transportation officials to plan next steps. The twin spans of the I-5 bridge are considered functionally obsolete by state transportation officials and an economic and safety liability. More than $170 million was spent planning the bridge replacement, which transportation officials had hoped to begin construction on next year.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom celebrated the unity of those who opposed the transportation package during the session and said they plan to work over the coming months to develop a proposal for lawmakers to consider next year, according to the AP.

“We’re going to lead on this issue,” said Tom, a Democrat who leads a majority dominated by Republicans.

Some Senate Republicans said receiving the House’s transportation package two days before they were due to adjourn didn’t win supporters any votes.

But there were plenty of Republicans who didn’t like the gas tax increase either.

“The timing for this gas tax increase is horrible,” House Transportation Committee Ranking Republican Ed Orcutt said in a statement. “We also have a transportation system that has proven inefficient and unaccountable. We’ve seen major construction project delays, errors and design flaws. We should pass reform measures to bring more accountability and transparency to the system. Simply put, we must fix it before we fund it.”

Orcutt also cited an economy still in “a fragile state of recovery” as a reason for opposing the gas tax increase.

“Increasing the gas tax by 10.5 cents will mean our state gas tax rate will have more than doubled since 2003,” he noted. “An increased tax burden on the people at a time when many are still unemployed or underemployed will further hamper our state’s economic recovery and the economic recovery of individuals and families.”

Inslee expressed his disappointment in the inaction in a statement issued Saturday.

“The failure by the Senate’s Republican-led majority to act on the transportation plan stops us from making important investments in maintaining and preserving our roads and bridges and ensuring the safety the public deserves,” the statement said.

Inslee hasn’t ruled out calling lawmakers back earlier than their scheduled return in January 2014 to take up transportation legislation again, The (Tacoma) News Tribune reported.

Some Progress But Parties Divided on Pennsylvania Funding Plan

Lawmakers in the Keystone State were able to complete work on a budget before Sunday’s deadline but an increase in transportation funding will have to wait until this fall at the earliest. They left Harrisburg for their annual summer break without passing an approximately $2 billion transportation package that includes an increase in a wholesale fuel tax, the Associated Press reported.

Gov. Tom Corbett chose to accentuate the positive to some degree, pointing to the Senate’s initial passage of the first significant transportation funding bill in 15 years.

“So we’ve made progress,” he said, according to The Patriot News. “I can’t be disappointed. I have to thank the (legislators) for what they did and I certainly encourage them when they get back in the fall: Let’s get it done.”

The Senate wanted to raise $2.5 billion annually for transportation, but neither Corbett nor the House wanted to spend that much. Last week, House Republicans offered a compromise that would have split the difference dollar-wise but would not have raised fees and fines as the Senate bill did and would have slowed the removal of the cap on the gasoline wholesale tax. But the House Republican majority was not able to muster the votes to pass the measure in part because it still included the wholesale fuel tax increase.

Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said he couldn’t support a tax increase to pump “hundreds of millions of dollars into the mass transit system … subsidizing somebody’s bus fare.”

But House Democrats also didn’t want to vote for it because they saw the funding as inadequate, especially after the $100 surcharge on traffic violations in the Senate Bill (the revenues from which would have gone to public transit) was removed in the House version.

“House Democrats are insistent that this bill needs to be bigger,” Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats said Saturday, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The bill as it stands right now is completely unsatisfactory. It is particularly deficient for transit, but even on roads and bridges, it falls far short of where we need to be.”

Some in the Senate Republican Majority shared the concerns of House Democrats.

“We don’t think it’s sufficient revenue,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of the House Republican bill. “We think the bare minimum is what was in” the Senate plan.

Some House Democrats also had problems with the fuel tax increases in the bill and wanted to see other funding mechanisms considered including bond financing for infrastructure work that could be funded by a new statewide levy on natural gas extraction.

“We believe there’s better ways of addressing the transportation issue than always hitting the middle class worker,” said Democrat Rep. Tony DeLuca.

Corbett ultimately blamed House Democrats for derailing the funding plan.

“I find it amazing that from a politic perspective that they took this position rather than good policy for the benefit of the people of Pennsylvania,” he said. “If they’re saying that their refusal to put up a vote was because there was not enough money that’s like the starving man saying ‘you’re only giving me a half of a loaf instead of a whole loaf so I’m not going to eat anything.’”

Other News of Note

Today (July 1st) is the day gas taxes increased for eight states, Citizens for Tax Justice notes:

  • Wyoming and Maryland passed legislation this year to implement their increases. The 3.8 cent increase in Maryland is the first in a series that will raise the state gas tax by 12.1 cents a gallon by July 2015.
  • Connecticut’s increase is due to 2005 legislation. Gov. Dannel Malloy last week rejected an effort by Republican lawmakers to stop the tax hike, WTNH reported.
  • California, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina are seeing increases due to indexing mechanisms that allow their tax rates to keep pace with the growth in gas prices.
  • Nebraska’s rate is going up both due to an increase in gas prices and because the rate is automatically adjusted to cover the amount of transportation spending authorized by the legislature.

Gas taxes were expected to fall this week in a pair of other states:

  • Virginia, which recently replaced its 17.5 cents per gallon gas tax with a smaller tax on the wholesale price of gas (causing a drop of about six cents in the pump price).
  • Vermont, where the gas tax will fall by a fraction of a penny due to a drop in gas prices. But that follows an almost six cent hike that went into effect in May as a result of legislation passed this year.