Taxing carbon: a path to SR 167 completion?

Governor Jay Inslee yesterday unveiled a $12 billion, 12-year transportation revenue proposal.

Forty percent of the revenue would come from a “market-based” carbon tax program. The state would set a hard cap on total carbon pollution, then charge fees for permits that authorize the release of emissions that contribute to climate change.

The Governor’s proposal certainly raises many questions, including how the program would be administered, whether the carbon tax revenue could be bonded and how politically viable the mechanism is.

The Governor, however, has reaffirmed his commitment to investing in key international trade corridors like State Route 167 in Pierce County and SR 509 in King County.

Specifically, Inslee proposes spending $856 million on SR 167 and $957 million on SR 509, for a total amount of $1.813 billion. Toll revenue collected on both highways would supplement these dollars.

By way of comparison, Curtis King, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, earlier this year proposed spending $1.659 billion on the two projects. The House of Representatives’ transportation package, passed in 2012, proposed spending $1.44 billion.

It is probably less important to focus on the dollar amounts and more on what those dollars are intended to deliver. According to the Governor’s staff, Inslee’s proposal is intended to deliver the same level of project delivery as anticipated in the House package. Because SR 509 would be completed more slowly than originally anticipated in the House bill, more money would be needed to account for inflation. As a reminder, the House proposed building only two lanes between Valley Avenue in Fife and Puyallup, and four lanes on the rest of the corridor. In contrast, Sen. King intended to fund four lanes all the way between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma.

It is also worth reminding decision makers that even then, State Route 167 would not truly be completed. All three proposals anticipate building a half-interchange at Interstate 5 and none of them anticipate completing the HOV lanes along that stretch of highway. Even if the state delivers everything anticipated by the King proposal, SR 167 supporters will need the state to make further future investments to really, truly complete SR 167 as anticipated decades ago.

With that said, Governor Inslee deserves credit for once again calling out the importance of completing SR 167. It is one of two mega projects funded immediately in the package (along with State Route 520). He also deserves credit for putting a proposal on the table. Ultimately, compromise will be needed by all sides. Reaching that final agreement, however, will only occur when all the parties come to the table proactively with constructive ideas. Whether one agrees with all of the details in Inslee’s proposal, he should be applauded for continuing to reminded decision makers that it is time to complete SR 167.

Here is the Seattle Times’ coverage of his announcement as well as Danny Westneat’s thoughts. Here is how the News Tribune covered the story as well as a piece of polling around carbon taxes.