- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—A provision in the state’s transportation budget is pitting activists who want to see the state cut carbon pollution against supporters of sidewalks, bike paths and public transit.

When Gov. Jay Inslee signed the 16-year, $16 billion package earlier this month, he agreed to a “poison pill” provision added by Republicans that if he uses executive action to enact a low-carbon fuel standard, communities around the state stand to lose almost $2 billion in funding for bike, pedestrian and public transit projects.

Last week, while advocacy groups were still celebrating the investment in alternative transportation, Inslee also began meeting with environmental, business and transportation groups to talk about the possibility of moving forward with a new fuel standard that would reduce carbon emissions for gasoline, a spokeswoman said.

More than $6 million budgeted for Yakima projects is at risk.

That’s $2 million to finish the Greenway Trail connecting Yakima to Naches, $2 million to build a bridge and trail along Cowiche Canyon Road as part of the William O. Douglas Trail and $2 million for five new buses for the Yakima Transit system, and potentially millions more in lost opportunity to apply for competitive grants.

Those projects are just a small part of the $136 million for local projects in the transportation plan, including for development of the new east-west corridor, interstate on and off ramps and bridge repair, all of which is safe from the poison pill provision. But the unprecedented level of funding represented an exciting opportunity for supporters of bike, pedestrian and transit options. But that excitement quickly gave way to concern.

“It’s a very gut-wrenching situation for us,” said Greenway Foundation Director Al Brown. “Getting that trail completed means so much for this community.”

The Republicans’ lead negotiator on the transportation package, Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, said he was surprised to see Inslee resume discussion of the low-carbon fuel standard after signing the bills.

“He praised (the package) when we reached agreement and he praised it when he signed it, but here he is,” King said. “I’ve offered to work with him on reaching the carbon emission goals for 2020 or 2025, but this is his deal and what he wants to hang his hat on.”

King said that the poison pill provision was designed to prevent the governor from implementing a fuel standard that could raise gas prices substantially after the transportation package already contained an increase in gas taxes.

According to the law, if a state agency enacts a low-carbon fuel standard similar to those in California and Oregon that replaces a percentage of gasoline with a biofuel to reduce emissions, the funding for bike, pedestrian and transit projects will be transferred to the roads and highways fund.

“The governor is having meetings to talk about this with a wide array of stakeholders and exploring whether it is possible to make progress on fighting carbon pollution and fund multimodal projects,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee’s office via email. “He hasn’t set a timeline for his decision.”

It’s a difficult choice for Inslee, who made climate change one of his top priorities when he took office. But it sets up a conflict for advocates who support both alternative transportation investments and policies to address climate change, said Rebecca Brown, co-founder of the advocacy group Yakima Bikes and Walks.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone who walks or bikes, but a lot of us who attend the Yakima Bikes and Walks meetings are concerned about climate change and would support measures to address it, but there are other ways besides this executive action on fuel standards,” she said.

Yakima Bikes and Walks and the statewide group Washington Bikes are calling on Inslee to forget the fuel standard and support the transportation funding. Both Brown and King pointed out that the state funding at risk of being cut is actually good for the environment.

“This is the most environmentally friendly transportation package we’ve had. All the transit, bike and pedestrian money, the alternative fuels, all those things are good for the environment and help us reduce what little pollution we have,” King said. “I’m hoping he’ll back off and we can just do this.”


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