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Originally published Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 6:58 PM

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Transportation budget passes, but reckoning awaits

As Thursday night at the Washington state Legislature wore on with no budget deal in sight, the prospect emerged of a second, unanticipated casualty of this session's bitter politics: the transportation budget.

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — As Thursday night at the Washington state Legislature wore on with no budget deal in sight, the prospect emerged of a second, unanticipated casualty of this session's bitter politics: the transportation budget.

In the end, by scrapping a contentious $8 annual charge to recreational-vehicle owners going toward state parks, lawmakers agreed on a supplemental transportation budget, along with a pair of related fee-increase bills, with minutes to spare in the 60-day regular session.

New funding in that $9.8 billion, two-year budget includes $9.5 million for the State Patrol, $9 million for cash-strapped regional and local transit agencies, $8.3 million for early work on highway projects and $7 million to buy fuel for the ferry system.

But no one was pretending that the $57 million in new money over the next year is close to enough to solve the state's larger transportation problems.

Citing bridges in need of replacement, roads overdue for repair and an overstretched, aging ferry system, a task force convened by the governor reported in December that the state needs to raise $21 billion over 10 years to shore up its transportation infrastructure.

As the Legislature convened in January, the governor called on lawmakers to pass a $3.6 billion transportation funding package for the next decade.

To help pay for it, she proposed a $1.50 fee on each barrel of oil refined in the state, which would have hit oil companies harder than drivers. The fee had significant support in the House but not in the more fundraising-averse Senate, where Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat, quickly declared it a nonstarter.

"I can count votes," Haugen said in early February. "And I don't have the votes for that."

Instead, the fee-increase package that Haugen and her counterpart on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, shepherded through the Legislature includes an 80 percent hike in the cost of a driver's license to $54 for six years, tripling the cost for a vehicle title to $15 and creating a $10 fee for original-issue license plates.

In addition to a $225 fee hike for first-time car dealer licenses and a near-doubling of the DUI hearing fee to $375, it also includes a $100 annual fee on electric cars, which will have little short-term impact given the small number of such vehicles now on the road in Washington.

Speaking hours before the transportation budget was approved on Thursday, Gregoire said she appreciated the Legislature's efforts to raise transportation funds but said lawmakers had missed a big opportunity to invest more in projects at a time when construction costs are low and contractors are hungry for work.

"Mark my words: I'll be gone next January and we'll be sitting on a huge problem with regard to transportation infrastructure in this state," Gregoire said. "And you don't have that, you don't have economic development."

Both Clibborn and Haugen said a large transportation package, funded by either a barrel fee or a gas-tax hike — the latter of which would have to win either a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or voter approval — would be necessary soon.

Getting such a package approved won't be easy, if the relatively modest fee increases the Legislature did pass this session are any indication. Even without the controversial recreational-vehicle charge, 20 senators and 47 representatives voted against at least one of the two bills that included the fee hikes. Of those, many went on to vote for the supplemental budget that the fees helped pay for.

In the Senate, among the 13 Republicans and one Democrat to do so was Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.

"You can be against increasing moneys and still be for working on projects," said Carrell. "Perhaps one could say that it would look like a little bit out of kilter, but I don't think so."

Haugen sees it differently.

"There's people down here, they won't vote for any fees, but by gosh they'll vote for what it pays for," she said. "I'm Scandinavian. You don't buy things you can't afford."

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