Washington State Department of Transportation officials have recently described their $700 million annual funding gap as a “glidepath toward failure.” Now, a Joint Transportation Committee report done with BERK Consulting and presented at the Washington State Transportation Commission’s Oct. 15 meeting shows that Washington’s 281 cities have a collective $1 billion gap in road maintenance and preservation, despite increased funding by local governments.
Washington’s 17,000 miles of city roads make up roughly 20 percent of all state roads but handle 25 percent of all traffic. BERK Consulting Project Manager Brian Murphy told WSTC members that local streets form the first and last part of trips. “City streets are an essential part of a statewide transportation network. They’re essential for getting residents and commerce around the state. They intersect with state and federal highway transportation systems and form an important part of that network.”
However, revenue to pay for those roads isn’t keeping pace with the cost of maintenance and repair. City streets are funded through a property tax along with a local sales and use tax, a business and occupation (B&O) tax and a utility tax. Under state law, the property tax can only increase by one percent per year. According to the report, property tax growth has not kept up with inflation.
The report indicates a misalignment between transportation needs and local investments. Most cities cover roughly 80 percent of local transportation funding, with 13 percent from state funds.
However, the funding issue is difficult to solve even as communities increase spending. In 2016 the town of Twisp created a transportation benefit district that generates $50,000 a year to pay for local road maintenance, on top of the $22,000 a year it receives from the state. According to the report, 35 percent of the town’s local property tax revenue goes to the city street fund. Yet to meet existing needs it would have to increase its spending by $2 million – or 10 times current funding.
“Even a town that has the political will and the community support…to vote and pass these measures to fund transportation for themselves, they still have limited capacity to generate revenue, and they’re dependent on other resources,” BERK Consulting Analyst Sherrie Hsu said.
In total, there is a $1 billion funding gap for city road maintenance and repair: the equivalent of increasing the local share of the state gas tax by $.28 per gallon or increasing local revenue by $190 per person. While towns like Twisp or Ritzville would have to increase their spending tenfold, larger cities like Tacoma would have to nearly quadruple their annual transportation funding from $90 million to $348 million.
The report contains two primary recommendations. One is to reduce the lifecycle costs for city roads and the increasing Transportation Improvement Board grant funding and eligibility. The other recommendation is to prioritize legislative funding for local transportation on higher-cost projects that exceed what cities can cover.
Murphy noted that some city streets often act “as the equivalent of a state highway. I think we need to look at ways to fund local jurisdictions for the use of their streets in that way.”