House transportation budget mimics Senate plan

OLYMPIA — The House transportation budget proposal Thursday mirrored the Senate’s bare-boned effort released a day earlier.

The Democrat-controlled House would devote $8.4 billion to transportation for the 2013-15 period compared with $8.7 billion by the Senate and its Republican-leaning Majority Coalition Caucus. The House splits are $3.5 billion for operations (compared with $3.4 billion in the Senate’s plan) and $4.9 billion for construction (compared with $5.3 billion in the Senate’s plan).

Bremerton late-night and midday sailings projected to be cut by Washington State Ferries appear safe as both chambers would fund them. The Senate would keep current ferry service intact while the House would save $2.1 million by lopping little-used departures, but not here. They would be from the Mukilteo-Clinton and Point Defiance-Tahlequah routes. Closer to home, the Port Townsend-Coupeville run would operate with one boat instead of two for four extra weeks.

Like the Senate, the House proposal provides $107.1 million to complete the building of two new 144-car ferries and $21.7 million to convert the Hyak to a hybrid propulsion system. It adds $10.3 million to cover the cost of increased crew sizes ordered last year by the Coast Guard instead of $11.8 million by the Senate.

“This budget properly treats ferries as true marine highways that link our region with the rest of the state,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island. “It maintains service levels in our area and, thanks to the fee increases we passed last year, funds some new boat construction so we don’t have to cancel routes when ferries go out of service.” He added: “The ferry system still has long-term needs that we’ll have to address in a comprehensive, statewide transportation package, but this budget moves us in the right direction.”

Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, doesn’t like to see any ferry service cut.

“Although the runs that were cut were not in our area, it is a seamless system so I believe there will be some impacts that we cannot foresee,” she said. “Other than that, I believe it is as good a budget as can be with no extra money or revenue.”

Unlike the Senate, the House doesn’t devote $250,000 to come up with a plan to merge ferries into the Good To Go! system that is used for tolling the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and other highways.

The House proposal is OK as a starting point, said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor.

“What’s missing is a path to our future,” he said. “On the operating side this budget still leads to red ink and reduced service in the year ahead. On the construction side this budget leaves with us with an aging fleet and constant breakdowns. We need more. I look forward to the further evolution of the transportation budget.”

Both budget proposals would redelegate authority to the state Transportation Commission to set ferry fares and bridge tolls.

The state Office of Financial Management, at the request of Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, ruled March 8 that transportation tolls can only be increased by the Legislature. Roach argued that giving toll-setting authority to the Transportation Commission circumvents the public will, because the commission can’t be held accountable by voters.

OFM’s ruling didn’t affect House and Senate budget writers from delegating their authority.

The Transportation Commission and Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee are proposing a 25-cent increase to take effect July 1.

Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, a member of the Transportation Committee, said the committee would be briefed Thursday afternoon about the budget that was put together by chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and vote on it Monday.

She didn’t support giving toll-setting authority back to the Transportation Commission.

“To me, that’s a sneaky way of getting it in there, to be able to write into law that the Transportation Commission has the ability to raise the tolls,” she said. “We’ve got to have that discussion, because popping it into the transportation budget, I don’t know if I can support that now.”

There were nine Kitsap-area transportation projects included in the Senate’s budget, which was introduced on Wednesday. Those same projects were included in the House’s version, introduced Thursday.