Southwest Washington lawmakers share concerns over fuel tax’s potential impact on I-5 bridge

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
Feb. 25, 2022 1 p.m.

While the proposal has drawn rebuke from lawmakers in Alaska and Idaho, Vancouver Democrats are more concerned about lawmakers who live on the other side of the Columbia River.

Washington Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, plans to introduce legislation that would limit campaign contributions for port elections in Vancouver.

Washington Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said a proposal to tax fuel exports into Oregon has caused tension in talks to replace the Interstate 5 bridge.

Molly Solomon / OPB

As states in the Pacific Northwest balk at a Washington proposal to tax exports of its refined oil, lawmakers near the Oregon-Washington border worry about damaging discussions surrounding a long sought Interstate 5 bridge replacement.

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Sen. Annette Cleveland and Rep. Sharon Wylie, both Vancouver Democrats, said they aren’t certain the tax will pass, but the stir it’s caused already is concerning.

“We both worked so hard to get to the table with Oregon and build some confidence that we can get ahead,” Wiley said. “And we’re both hoping that it moves forward.”

Wylie and Cleveland each serve on their respective chambers’ transportation committee. They will play key roles in how Washington raises money to replace the bridge, as well as the fate of the export tax.

Neither told OPB if they currently support or oppose the tax. Both filed amendments to the legislation to delay the export tax’s start date from February 2023 to the end of June that year.

Earlier this month, the Washington Legislature proposed taxing the oil it refines into motor fuel, which is then shipped to Western states like Alaska, Idaho and Oregon. It proposed 6 cents per gallon, potentially raising around $2 billion over the next 16 years.

On paper, the export tax is one piece of a larger plan to raise $16 billion for transportation and infrastructure projects throughout the state. One marquee project is replacing the I-5 bridge, which is 105 years old and one of the busiest bottlenecks of interstate travel on the West Coast.

The transportation package hasn’t yet made it to a vote. It passed the Senate, but currently sits in the House.

Wylie and Cleveland said they and other lawmakers have been surprised to see the backlash to the export tax.

On Wednesday, a group of Alaska lawmakers proposed a retaliatory tax: a $15 surcharge on every barrel of crude oil exported into Washington. Idaho’s House of Representatives pushed a resolution to take “any and all actions” to block the Washington export tax as well.

“This is a bit different,” Cleveland said, noting that most legislation doesn’t draw other states’ attention so quickly. “I’m certainly much happier that those concerns were raised when we can still try to find a way to address them.”

Oregon and Washington legislators toured the Interstate 5 Bridge before their committee meeting on replacing the bridge.

Oregon and Washington legislators toured the Interstate 5 bridge before their committee meeting on replacing the bridge.

Oregon Department of Transportation

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Wylie, who defended the tax at least initially, said lawmakers had been looking for new places for revenue that aren’t gas taxes or fees on license plate tabs. She said there was a “perception that export taxes are more common” as the transportation package took shape.

Oregon’s concerns are perhaps the most critical to the two Southwest Washington lawmakers, whose constituencies largely fall within the Portland metropolitan area and are often impacted by both states’ policies.

On Tuesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown published an op-ed in The Seattle Times saying the export tax proposal “undermined” the two states’ partnership. Two Oregon Republicans have also threatened to leave the bi-state legislative committee overseeing the replacement of the I-5 bridge if the export tax passes.

The actions poke at old wounds. Oregon and Washington infamously couldn’t agree on funding a bridge replacement, and the project fell apart in 2013 when the Washington Senate refused to pass a funding package.

Since then, Washington lawmakers have recognized they needed to show they are serious about returning to the table. And, Cleveland said, they want to assure the federal government they aren’t going to repeat history.

“I think it’s critical that Washington demonstrate a commitment to funding that project,” Cleveland said. She noted that President Biden referenced the project by name in a speech about fixing the country’s aging bridges.

An unprecedented amount of federal money is on the table right now. The U.S. government’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package passed in January earmarks about $40 billion for bridges.

The I-5 bridge and the influx of federal dollars are ultimately still a priority for some Oregon lawmakers on the bi-state committee. While the export tax is disappointing, they said, it’s not a deal breaker.

“We want to demonstrate we’ve got our act together, we’re ready to go, and we’re continuing to work at all times together,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro.

A representative for the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Project, an administrative team jointly run by the departments of transportation in Oregon and Washington, declined to comment for this article.

McLain declined to comment on the Oregon Republicans’ threat to leave the committee. Meanwhile, Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said the committee would likely just attempt to re-fill those seats if needed.

“Presiding officers appoint members, and sometimes not all of them show up who want to do business,” Beyer said. “I think we would try to keep figuring out what we would need to do to make it all work together. That bridge is a really important project for Oregon commerce.”

However, Beyer did say that he and other Oregon lawmakers would continue to look for ways to recoup costs from Washington if the export does pass.

“I’m looking, but I haven’t found anything yet,” the senator said.

In Olympia, discussions over the export tax are expected to continue in the coming days. The Washington Legislature is set to wrap up its current session March 10.

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How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
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