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Gov. Jay Inslee defends WSDOT ahead of potential tax increases

Gov. Jay Inslee joined KIRO Radio's Dori Monson for a discussion about the state being in need of more transportation dollars. (AP)

Lawmakers ultimately failed last year to reach agreement on a transportation plan. Problems facing the State Highway 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct replacements make the discussion this session to raise the gas tax to pay for roads, bridges, and transit throughout Washington even more difficult.

Though they differed on the details, all sides were hoping for a roughly $10 billion deal that relied on increasing the state’s gas tax by at least 10 cents a gallon.

But KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson asks whether with recent transportation project blunders (520 bridge cost overruns and Seattle tunnel project delays), taxpayers can trust the state enough to give more money to transportation.

“We know that the state is going to be looking for billions of dollars in tax hikes for transportation projects,” says Monson. “Can the state be trusted with major transportation projects? More importantly, are you willing to pay more in taxes with the promise that things are going to be different on the next project?”

Monson doesn’t feel this is the time to give the Washington State Department of Transportation more money, so he invited Governor Jay Inslee to offer his perspective.

First off, Gov. Inslee told Monson that people should be frustrated, and that he’s frustrated, with the mistakes that were made on the 520 project and the $1.4 billion Seattle tunnel project. But he said there’s a new crew on the job today.

“I would ask people to consider, this is a new team on the field right now. This is the team that built the bridge over the Skagit River in 27 days,” said Inslee. “We got rid of the people who had made the mistakes on the 520 bridge. They do not work for us anymore. I got a new team and they have delivered the mail when they were called to on the first project I had to take care of, which was the Skagit River Bridge.”

They’ve also put in place some new lean management systems at WSDOT, Inslee said, which are making sure that any mistakes made by contractors don’t have to be covered by the taxpayers.

“The way this works, of course, is that DOT does not maintain the capacity to do these construction projects themselves. So we hire an independent business,” said Inslee. “The private business undertakes a contractual responsibility to the taxpayers of the state of Washington, and when they do not perform, when they foul up, this is not going to be on the back of the taxpayers.”

With the current issue of a steel pipe blocking Bertha’s tunnel path under Seattle, Inslee said the WSDOT notified them of the pipe in that location and the contractor moved through there anyway.

“From what we know today, we told the contractor the pipe was there,” said Inslee. “We gave them a map showing it was there, and they just kept going. Now we’re going to do everything we can to make sure taxpayers don’t pay for that.”

While Inslee insisted Washington state has a new crew on the job that will perform, Monson said he’s heard that before from past governors and heads of the department of transportation. He asked Inslee if this time around they could just take a moment to prove themselves before going to the taxpayers.

“Why don’t you prove it for a couple of years that it is a new era, and then come to us. Because right now, it’s a gigantic leap of faith if anybody votes for new taxes for an organization that has not gotten the job done,” said Monson.

While the state is grappling with long-term transportation issues, Inslee said there are also things that need to be addressed in the short-term. If they can’t reach a resolution on this, Inslee said there’s going to be about a 20 percent reduction in ferry service, around 80,000 people in King County who lose bus service, and there’s also going to be 71 bridges that will become structurally deficient in Washington next year.

“I have seen a bridge at the bottom of the Skagit,” said Inslee, “it’s not a pretty picture, and we just have to keep the safety of those bridges going.”

The governor also said that in 2016 when the 520 bridge reaches the west shore of Lake Washington, “it will be the bridge to nowhere because we don’t have enough to finish the six-lane corridor from the end of that bridge to I-5.”

But before going to taxpayers for the extra money, Monson asked if there were other solutions, potentially higher fees at the fare boxes for ferries and buses, or other sources of potential revenue.

Monson suggested looking at casinos.

“We’re the only state in the country that has tribal gambling where the state doesn’t get a cut,” said Monson. “Instead of coming to the people, who are already paying so much in gas tax and sales tax, why don’t you go to sources of revenue that other states have that’s essentially voluntary taxation?”

“It could happen,” said Inslee. “But ultimately every tax gets filtered down to citizens. It’s not just the tribes that pay. It’s the citizens who will end up paying more.”

“There’s no free lunch here, I guess is the point I’m trying to make,” said Inslee. “I wish there was. I wish we could build these bridges without doing any of this. This is tough.”

After the conversation with Inslee, Monson said he’s still a no vote.

“I have so much respect for Governor Inslee because he knows that I’m going to disagree with him and the fact that he is willing to come on and present the other side to you, the listener, I love that about him,” said Monson.

“But I’ve got to see a much longer and a much better track record from the state on transportation projects before I’m going to vote to give the DOT more money for transportation projects.”

Rare action on first day of Washington Legislature

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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