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Originally published September 3, 2013 at 8:16 PM | Page modified September 3, 2013 at 9:55 PM

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Inslee ready to drop Columbia River bridge to win a transportation package

Two months after the state Legislature adjourned without approving new money for transportation projects, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday he’s willing to remove a top priority in order to help lawmakers come together.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Gov. Jay Inslee suggested Tuesday he’s willing to set aside discussion of a new Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge to help reach agreement on a multibillion-dollar transportation tax package.

A proposal to increase the state gas tax by 10.5 cents per gallon to fund transportation projects was derailed in the Legislature two months ago, in part, because the GOP-led Senate caucus opposed plans for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC).

At a news conference Inslee called to float the idea of a transportation-focused special session in November, the Democratic governor indicated there may be a way to drop the bridge from a compromise package.

“There are discussions right now of looking at other alternatives that do not involve funding for the Columbia River Crossing out of a transportation package,” he said. “I’ve had discussions with (Oregon) Gov. Kitzhaber. ... So I don’t think that should be a blockage at all of moving forward.”

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said afterward that Oregon is considering moving forward on its own to replace the bridge and put projects on the Washington state side on hold until funding could be figured out.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom said Inslee’s willingness to remove that project from the broader transportation package makes an agreement more likely.

“From day one, we told the governor that CRC was a nonstarter in the Senate,” Tom said. “He didn’t quite get that message. I’m glad he’s hearing it now.”

The Senate majority caucus opposed putting light rail on the bridge and raised concerns the structure would not be high enough to move cargo and equipment under it, among other issues.

Inslee said he’ll call the special session only if Republicans and Democrats can strike a deal on a package.

“Today, the need for action remains, and remains even clearer than it was a couple of months ago. Our state’s transportation challenges are not going away,” Inslee said, calling on lawmakers to “step up to the plate.”

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said it’s possible an agreement could be reached this year. Clibborn rolled out a proposal last session.

She warned though, that if Republicans “don’t come up with a package there won’t be any negotiation because I’m not going to sit down and have them work over mine and tell me what they would like.”

Tom said his caucus is willing to agree to a package if it includes policy changes that Republicans have long demanded.

“If this is about congestion relief and getting some fundamental reforms, I think we can get something done. If people are just going to throw money at projects without the efficiency that voters are demanding, I don’t think it matters because voters will just reject it,” said Tom, D-Medina, noting that Senate leaders from both parties are about to embark on a “listening tour” to talk to residents about transportation.

As for a special session, Tom said, “It just depends on if people want to hold press conferences and point fingers, or do they actually want to get something done.”

At the Tuesday news conference in Seattle, Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine said they hope the state’s glaring needs and pressure from the business community will spur lawmakers to action.

Without new revenue, King County Metro Transit faces a 17 percent cut that could lead to an elimination of 65 bus routes and reductions of trips on 86 more, said Constantine, standing next to a poster board highlighting 35 county bridges and 70 road segments “at risk” without new funding.

“The consequences of continued delay are unacceptable,” the executive said, adding he’s “confident that a solution will be found because a solution must be found.”

Clibborn’s package, approved by the House last session, could have helped stave off those cuts by giving local governments the option of a 1.5 percent vehicle renewal tax, in addition to the statewide gas-tax increase.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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