Voters to decide on 9 cent gas tax hike

Minutes before midnight Thursday, the Legislature agreed on a $7.7 billion state transportation package that will benefit ferry commuters in Kitsap County.

But there was some doubt lawmakers could adjourn on time this year.

A debate raged all day Thursday about whether voters should get a chance to approve or disprove the state package.

Yet as the session’s deadline neared Senate and House members agreed to submit the state transportation revenue plan to the people as a referendum ballot this November.

“I will tell you there (has been) a determination down here by everyone to be done here Thursday night,” said Pouslbo Republican Rep. Beverly Woods, who was appointed as a transportation negotiator.

The House approved the state plan on a 75 to 23 vote and the Senate passed the plan, which does not require the governor’s signature, 30 to 17.

Woods said the legislature had been “marathoning” to complete the necessary transportation negotiations.

The state package includes about $90 million over the next decade for the expansion of passenger-only ferry services in Kitsap County to include two passenger boats to be operated on the Kingston and Southworth to downtown Seattle routes.

Earlier in the session, Senate leaders weren’t as committed to expanding passenger service across the Puget Sound and, thus, originally hadn’t included any funds.

Steady lobbying by Kitsap lawmakers such as Senate floor leader Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, helped sway Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, and negotiations all last week and during the weekend proved fruitful for Kitsap County.

“Persistency is the key,” Sheldon said, explaining the Senate’s changed position. “It helps that there are nine of us (representatives) from Kitsap. That makes a difference.”

Sheldon said it has also helped that U.S. Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, has kept up-to-date and keyed into ferry-related negotiations in Olympia.

The Bremerton senator said informal talks in Olympia suggest the Chinook and Snohomish, the two passenger-only ferries that currently operate out of Bremerton, could be moved to Kingston and Southworth.

In turn, a new “used” boat, built to travel quickly without causing wake damage in Rich Passage, could be purchased or procured for the Bremerton to downtown Seattle run.

“Rumors are a dime a dozen,” Sheldon said. “But that’s one of the things we’ll be looking at after the session concludes.”

Sheldon, as are all other Kitsap lawmakers, is interested in seeing the big transportation bills and the budget approved quickly first.

“That’s a good possibility if the two new (passenger) boats we get could travel Rich Passage without causing wake problems,” Woods said. “We could then move those other two boats to Kingston or split them between Kingston and Southworth. It’s been talked about in casual terms, but we need to get the money secured first and then we can have that discussion.”

This last weekend, negotiators crafted the compromise transportation plan, which hinges on a 9-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase — a proposal that would cost the average driver in Washington State an additional $6 every month.

Under the definition, average drivers travel about 12,000 miles annually in one vehicle. The gas tax would be phased in over two years in 5-cent and 4-cent increments.

The plan also relies on a 1 percent sales tax increase on new and used vehicles and a 30 percent increase on truck weight fees.

The plan also includes $322 million for four replacement vessels and $273.5 million for terminal and vessel improvements and preservation over the next decade.

The legislature also approved a regional transportation package, which was negotiated in conjunction with the state transportation plan. The regional bill would allow King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to approve local-option tax increases to fund regional highway projects that the state can’t afford to take on itself. Tax options include sales taxes and car-licensing fees. As crafted, the regional bill won’t go into effect if a state plan fails. That plan is awaiting the governor’s signature.

“I am extremely pleased the Senate moved toward the House plan on the passenger-only ferry front” in the end, said Woods.

The 60-day legislative session was scheduled to conclude on Thursday, March 14.

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