Transportation Funding Questions Persist

Transportation Funding Questions Persist
The State Route 99 tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct. The tunnel burrowing is expected to finish in June. Photo: WSDOT.

Adequately maintaining and growing Washington’s transportation infrastructure isn’t cheap, and in Central Puget Sound alone, a million more residents are due by 2040. A third state gas tax hike in 12 years was approved in 2015. Since the 2011-13 biennium, the state has spent roughly $12.5 billion on transportation capital projects. Now, Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a $4.1 billion transportation capital budget for the 2017-19 biennium.

Everywhere you look, there’s a road crew working. Yet the current rate of transportation spending puts the state shy of a goal of $21 billion more by 2022, set in a 2012 task force report. That was a downscaled, basic-needs estimate. Actually, a full $50 billion was targeted by 2022 to optimize the state’s transportation system, according to the same task force, of blue-ribbon experts convened by then-Governor Christine Gregoire.

Millar: Capacity Growth Not Keeping Pace

Growth of the system isn’t keeping pace. In a “State of the State of Transportation” presentation to the House Transportation Committee January 11, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar said, you might have noticed that sometimes it’s crowded on our highways…When I look at population growth, at two percent a year, and employment growth at a rate of about two percent a year, and then think about how fast we’re adding capacity to our system, it’s about one-tenth of a percent a year, even with what we spend.” 

Washingtonians already pay 69 cents per gallon in state and federal taxes at the gas pump. The “Connecting Washington” package passed by lawmakers in 2015 raised the gas tax 12 cents, and is to yield $16 billion over 16 years.

Inslee’s proposed 2017-19 biennial transportation capital budget includes:

  • $11.5 million for an I-405 northbound shoulder lane;
  • $5 million for planning improvements to the I-405 and State Route 522 interchanges with I-5;
  • $17.5 million to add road capacity to I-5 in downtown Seattle;
  • $20 million for added road capacity on State Route 167 between Puyallup and the State Route 18 interchange.

A $3.2 billion deep-bored, tolled tunnel at Seattle’s downtown waterfront on State Route 99 had suffered numerous delays due to the tunnel machine, “Bertha,” getting stuck underground. Now, the work is about 70 percent done, with Bertha scheduled to finish her work in June, according to Millar.

2015 Package Leaves “Lot To Be Done”

The 2015 Connecting Washington package invests $879 million in a 10.5 mile-long limited access freeway project, the North Spokane Corridor. It aims to improve freight mobility for truckers headed north or south, by connecting the current truncated US 395 north of Spokane to I-90 on the south. Construction has begun, and the project is set for completion in 2029.

Another Connecting Washington project will expand road capacity on I-5 between Lakewood and DuPont, where Joint Base Lewis-McChord is located. Construction at the north end of the corridor is scheduled to begin in 2018.

Connecting Washington “is going to move us down the road” in terms of expanding state road capacity, said Senate Transportation Chair Curtis King (R-14). However, it “still left a lot to be done with our existing infrastructure.”

The road and bridge maintenance costs are not cheap. Millar estimates WSDOT-managed roads will require $205 million annually just for preservation, while WSDOT-managed bridges will require $270 million yearly for the next 10 years.

King: We Can’t Wait

Addressing the existing state’s transportation needs is something “I don’t think we can wait another 14 to 15 years to look at,” said King.

The sentiment is shared by Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35). He told Lens, “if you don’t take care of your roads, as time goes on, they are very expensive.”

Paths To Economic Growth

Finding the right revenue mix will prove tricky. WSDOT estimates that 77 percent of the state’s net portion of fuel tax revenue between 2014 and 2024 is obligated to pay for long-term debt for past or planned projects. Another state gas tax hike is unlikely this session, said Sheldon.

In the meantime, King says the legislature should continue prioritizing transportation projects that facilitate economic growth by improving mobility and regional access, an approach taken with Connecting Washington.

“If we’re able to do that, and we help that growth in our economy, it will also help grow our revenue for transportation,” he said.

The state could also stretch existing dollars further with more efficient project designs and streamlining the permitting processes that add to project costs, said Sheldon. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of time and money on permitting and environmental issues for roads and bridges,” he said. “I think we are going to need to spend our money more efficiently.”

A Steep Haul

In their latest quadrennial assessment of transportation infrastructure across the U.S., the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Washington grades of C- and D+ for the condition of its roads and bridges, respectively. Lawmakers and other stakeholders are keeping eyes open for further articulation of a preliminary proposal from President-elect Donald Trump, to create $1 trillion over 10 years in new transportation funding through public-private partnerships.

Some also say the first hike in the federal gas tax since 1983 may be warranted, and others are looking to loosen Washington’s restrictions on public-private transportation projects.

Another option is an envisioned mileage tax known as the road user charge (RUC), now approaching a pilot test with up to 2,000 Washingtonians.

The Washington State Transportation Commission says conservative estimates are that average vehicle mileage in the state will go from the current 20.5 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2035.

Revenue Cliff, But Growing Costs

“It is already a challenge to maintain and improve roads under current revenue levels. Imagine the impact when Washington has 50 percent less revenue to spend but the costs of services and materials continue to rise,” the commission states.

State Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36), Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said, “usage-based models make sense, at a philosophical level. It’s hard to socialize the costs of infrastructure across the board.” With vehicle mileage continuing to improve, a replacement for the gas tax is something the state will want to consider, but the RUC would still need to be fully vetted, Carlyle said.

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