Keeping Traffic, Freight And The Economy Moving In Washington: It Won’t Be Cheap

Keeping Traffic, Freight And The Economy Moving In Washington: It Won't Be Cheap
President-elect Donald Trump has proposed to invest $1 trillion to fix the nation's infrastructure through public-private partnerships. Some Washington state stakeholders see promise in the national conversation sparked by the proposal, but the state's role in funding future fixes remains key. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation.

President-elect Donald Trump has proposed a $1 trillion national infrastructure investment plan over the next decade. While that might sound “yuge,” it is less than half the $3.6 trillion in infrastructure spending needed just by 2020, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In ASCE’s “Report Card For America’s Infrastructure,” Washington earned a C, or mediocre. That’s versus a D for the nation.

10-Year State Transportation Needs Were $50 Billion

Washington bridges and roads got a C- and D respectively. A state gas tax package in 2015 will direct $16 billion toward surface transportation, but that’s just a start. A 2012 state task force report estimated $50 billion over ten years is needed to repair and improve Washington’s transportation system.

“We are behind in…maintaining our highways and maintaining our bridges,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Curtis King (R-14). “I think that’s an area they (Trump) need to look at.”

As described by Trump advisor and public-policy professor Peter Navarro, infrastructure projects would be “revenue neutral” by offering private companies working on the projects tax credits while recuperating the lost revenue through increased taxes tied to construction work. The plan also envisions tolling to generate revenue for private investors.

Congress could authorize tolling pilot projects on federal aid roads or “at the other extreme,” require interstates become toll roads as they’re upgraded. But tolls have limited application because of collection costs, political opposition and competing free routes, CRS concludes.

Keeping Traffic, Freight, Economy Moving

The early Trump proposal’s public-private partnership model has drawn its share of critics, in part because only the projects with the greatest revenue upside would draw private investment, leaving aside much else in needed system upgrades to keep traffic, freight and the economy moving.

Bruce Agnew is director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development in Seattle. He told Lens that Trump’s broad vision for enhancing U.S. infrastructure sparks an important conversation, but practicality dictates that any federal funding package include some form of public investment, too. “You’re going to have to have some traditional finance in the mix,” he said.

One way to do that would be to increase the federal gas tax by five to ten cents per gallon. The tax has not been raised since 1983, although road usage has grown exponentially since then. That could help the struggling federal Highway Trust Fund, which remains at risk of insolvency.

If the status quo on federal road and bridge funding holds, looking to Washington D.C. isn’t a solution. A 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) states, “the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that annual highway revenues, mostly from motor fuels taxes, will fall an average of $20 billion short of the amount needed to sustain the current federal surface transportation program between FY2021 and FY2025. This impending shortfall could again revive congressional interest in tolling.”

State House Transportation Committee Vice Chair Jake Fey (D-27) told Lens a federal gasoline tax hike would help pay for key projects and would utilize a revenue stream already in place. “Not to say it can’t be done in certain circumstances,” but “public-private partnership has had a mixed record,” he said.

Although the Trump framework doesn’t mention any specific projects, state lawmakers have a number of top priorities. Fey says replacing the bi-state bridge over the Columbia River, connecting Washington and Oregon, is paramount. Not only is it one of the most heavily congested corridors in the nation, it  is one of the country’s most unsafe bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory.

Per-Mile Charge, State P3s

Another funding option is a road user charge (RUC), or per-mile fee. The Washington Transportation Commission plans to start an RUC pilot project this fall using up to 2,000 volunteer drivers. It could compensate for the loss of gas tax revenue as vehicle fuel efficiency improves.

“A lot of it’s going to depend on how it’s implemented,” King said. “What do you do with vehicles coming from out of state, vehicles that are leaving the state?”

An alternative would be to relax the state’s restrictions on public-private partnerships for transportation projects. State Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) plans to introduce a bill that would do just that by allowing such partnerships to fund improvements to park-and-ride facilities, and ferry terminals.

He told Lens “there ought to be a third option” to the RUC or more tolling, for funding the state transportation system.

I-90, I-5 Ripe For Fixes

Sections of Washington’s interstate system such as the heavily-congested I-90 interchange with State Route 18 are also “ripe” for federal funding, said Sheri Call, president of the Washington Trucking Associations. A WSDOT project for that interchange is scheduled to begin design in 2023, but some state lawmakers say it is not soon enough.

“Seeing the improvement in throughput” on major corridors like I-90 and I-5 would also be “a welcome feature of any transportation package,” Call said.

Cost Of Congestion

Metro Seattle has the sixth-worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to a 2015 traffic scorecard by Kirkland-based traffic analytics company INRIX. Seattle region congestion costs $3.3 billion annually, according to the 2015 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Scorecard.

Vital projects to fund include rebuilding the I-5 corridor between downtown Seattle and Eastlake, said Agnew. State estimates for fixing degraded I-5 surfaces in Seattle and making other I-5 improvements there top $2 billion. Farther south on I-5, an additional lane is needed in each direction between Centralia and Kelso, Agnew added.

Resolving Road-Rail Conflicts

The state’s railroad infrastructure requires fixing, just as much as roads and bridges do, according to the ASCE’s 2013 report card. In urban regions statewide, at least $1 billion worth of rail crossing improvements are needed, according to a 2014 report by the Washington Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board.

A recent rail corridor study presented to the Joint Transportation Committee identified “substantial” conflict at the top 50 at-grade crossing in the state. One of the study’s recommendations was the creation of a funding source to raise the estimated $830 million necessary to resolve those road-rail conflicts.

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