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WSDOT: State transportation system on “glidepath to failure”

WSDOT: State transportation system on “glidepath to failure”

Beginning in the 2021-23 biennium, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will no longer pave highway ramps or sections of the freeway where the speed limit is 40 miles per hour (MPH) or less. Agency officials say it’s part of a prioritization strategy they must use due to a $700 million annual funding gap for maintenance and preservation.

At a Sept. 19 meeting of the Joint Transportation Committee, WSDOT Deputy Secretary Keith Metcalf told legislators that the situation on roads will get worse unless the current funding level changes. The economic implications could be enormous, with $500 billion worth of goods and services moving throughout the state’s highways.

“The prosperity of our state is at risk,” Metcalf said. “The transportation system we have here in Washington is the backbone of our economy and to daily life. Unfortunately, our state transportation system is on a glidepath to failure, because not enough funding has been set aside to maintain and preserve the system we have for the generations to come. Our continued prosperity is intrinsically tied to our transportation system’s health.”

The news may come as a shock to Washington drivers, who pay a $.494 state tax on every gallon of fuel they put into their vehicles; with the federal gas tax, a total of the $.678 is paid on every gallon of gas. Since 2011 the gas tax has increased by $.12 due to a $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package approved by the legislature. The 2015 package was almost double the amount of the $8.5 billion transportation package approved by the legislature in 2005, which at the time was the largest in state history. Prior to 2005, the state gas tax was only $.28; the 2005 package raised it by $.095 to $.375 per gallon.

Currently, Washington’s gas tax is the fourth highest in the nation. WSDOT receives $.08 or 16 percent of the $.49 gas tax. Cities and local governments get $.12 or 24 percent. Around 37 percent of the gas tax is currently dedicated to paying off bond debt. However, that figured is expected to increase to 52 percent by 2029. The increased debt payments will reduce the amount available for legislative-directed transportation investments, but WSDOT will still receive the $.08.

According to WSDOT, the agency needs $1.24 billion annually to preserve and maintain the transportation system, but receives $690 million less than that. Metcalf noted that “the state has been very generous as far as passing packages for transportation…but unfortunately for the system, not a lot has been directed to the preservation side.”

As a result, the following maintenance work is left uncompleted:

  • 7,600 lane miles of pavement; current funding only allows for half of the 1,200-1,400 miles to be done annually;
  • 15 bridge replacements and 19 major bridge repairs (only two bridges are being replaced);
  • 17 of the 22 state ferries have backlogs of maintenance work, with 622 days of unscheduled maintenance in the 2019 fiscal year; and
  • One-fifth of the Palouse River and Coulee City railroad line (PCC) is in such poor condition that railcars can only travel at 10 MPH.

Remarks by committee members during the meeting suggested that surplus WSDOT assets or property could be sold to help plug some of the funding gaps. According to former Senate Transportation chair Sen. Curtis King (R-14), WSDOT is directed to sell roughly $10 million in assets to generate additional revenue.

Washington Policy Center Transportation Mariya Frost told Lens “the biggest question I have…is why wasn’t there a more thorough discussion of what policy recommendations the Washington state Department of Transportation has to reduce costs? What can WSDOT do within the agency itself to reduce agency costs and maybe shift some of that percentage over to legislatively directed investments or debt service?”

Right now, WSOT has set up asset management plans and cost-saving strategies such as repairing only the most needed sections of road pavement. The agency is also assuming financial liability for delayed maintenance work. However, Metcalf said that “deferred liability cannot be postponed indefinitely.”

The agency has already implemented cost-saving measures recommended in a 2014 JTC study, such as practical design methods. Among the report’s findings was that contract costs over the 10-year period studied ended up higher than the original award, to the tune of $484 million total. The largest discrepancy between the awards and actual payment involved contracts greater than $25 million. However, the report noted that “highway construction costs in Washington are generally in line with experiences elsewhere.”

Among the possible actions included in the report are eliminating prevailing wage and allowing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) exemptions for smaller WSDOT projects. However, the study concluded that both measures would yield low cost savings for the agency. Eliminating prevailing wage would reduce costs by one percent, while the planning phase that includes the environmental review makes up 10 percent of the total project costs.

The legislature could also direct state sales tax revenue from contractors doing highway construction work to the transportation fund.

“I just don’t buy the idea that we need to talk about new money yet,” Frost said.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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