I-976, 179th Street and ‘gloomy head nods’

After Initiative 976 passed, the Clark County Council consulted its legislative lobbyist about the measure’s potential impact on a premier county transportation project. Councilors didn’t seem to like what they heard.

Passed by Washington voters Nov. 5, the initiative caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30. It will also cost state and local governments more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

“While the county does not receive direct revenue from car tabs, we will be impacted,” Lyndsey Shafar, the county’s policy analyst, said during a Nov. 13 council time meeting. “Everything is up for fair game, but this may change our legislative requests in terms of how we approach it.”

A normal 60-day legislative session in 2020 likely wouldn’t provide a large enough window to address every detail, said Josh Weiss, the county’s legislative lobbyist. Lawsuits to stop the initiative have been filed by government agencies throughout the state. A court may also stall its implementation.

“We could be in a state of limbo for another year or more, really, about this,” Weiss said.

Until then, the county will have an outstanding, front-of-mind question: how will the measure impact a $66.5 million private-public plan to develop more than 1,500 single-family homes near the Northeast 179th Street-Interstate 5 interchange?

In 2015, state lawmakers included $50 million for the project in its $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package. The package is primarily funded by gas taxes (not car tabs).

But Gov. Jay Inslee has put a hold on all Washington State Department of Transportation projects not currently underway.

Weiss surmised that the state Legislature might divert funds from Connecting Washington to shore up the account that holds car tab revenue. Programs funded by the gas tax (like 179th Street) might also be in jeopardy, especially considering that it is still in the design phase.

“Will (the state) want to put that project on hold and free up those dollars, potentially, for a project somewhere else?” Weiss said. “I just think the dynamic will shift pretty dramatically.”

Competition might be coming between counties. Weiss said Clark County could argue that it has already committed its own funds to the project, but other counties that didn’t approve I-976 might still get the nod.

“If we get locked in competition for 179th (Street) with a specific King County project, I think the edge is going to go toward the King County project now,” Weiss said. “Those projects will probably get extra points over other projects in competition.”

The statement was followed by silence, save a few sighs, from county councilors.

“I’m seeing a lot of gloomy head nods,” Shafar said with an uneasy laugh.

Following Weiss’s suggestion, Shafar said that the county will compile a list of projects it will want to prioritize when seeking money from the state. How many of those projects will receive full, or any, state aid is impossible to know.

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan is a breaking news reporter and covers Clark County government for The Columbian.

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