With the passage of Initiative 976 by voters during the Nov. 5 election, state lawmakers must now find places to reduce funding in the transportation budget. According to the state Office of Financial Management (OFM), the $30 car tab limit will reduce state revenue by roughly $1.9 billion over the next six years. Despite the reduced revenue, Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed 2020 supplemental transportation budget would increase spending by $851 million while redirecting road construction sales tax and using existing unappropriated funds.
Notably, the budget would also delay several highway projects throughout the state. Local government officials and business advocates testifying at a Jan. 13 public hearing of the House Transportation Committee emphasized the importance of those projects.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has released a proposed list of deferred projects. Already, Inslee has paused several highway projects for seven months, beginning in December. Among them is the Puget Sound Gateway Project near SeaTac. Last year, the legislature approved expediting work on it by bonding toll revenue.
Seatac City Manager Kyle Moore told lawmakers that the corridor “serves as an essential…link to improve both freight mobility and access to the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma….and most importantly, supporting job growth in our region city of SeaTac.”
However, in support of Inslee’s proposal was Association of Washington Cities Government Relations Advocate Logan Bahr. “We believe that the policy priorities that the governor has outlined are thoughtful and provide a reasonable basis for the development of the transportation budget.”
The area most affected by I-976 is the multimodal account used to fund transportation projects. To make up for the loss, Inslee’s budget would shift sales tax revenue collected from Connecting Washington construction projects from the general fund to the multimodal account. In addition to deferred highway projects, the budget also holds off on public transportation projects until the next biennium.
OFM Interim Senior Budget Analyst Erik Hansen told committee members that the budget “is to get us to next biennium…and leave some time to continue the conversation of how do we address the impacts of I-976 beyond just this biennium?”
At the same time, some transportation analysts have noted that deferred highway projects rely on gas tax revenue, not car tab fees. Association of Washington Business (AWB) Director of Government Affairs Mike Ennis told the committee that Inslee should “un-pause projects that are not directly or indirectly impacted by I-976. We encourage you to fully fund projects of regional and statewide significance.”
While Hansen said the budget takes into account the status of highway projects and reliance on matching grant funding when deciding whether to defer work, Pasco City Manager Dave Zebell argued that delays also come with costs due to inflation. Among the deferred projects is an overpass in the city of Pasco that relies on state matching funds. Zebell estimated that the total costs for the project increase by $100,000 every month.
“It’s shovel-ready, so delaying… ready projects really doesn’t save money in the long run. It will cost us money in this case.”
No further action is scheduled on the transportation budget in House Transportation; a public hearing of Inslee’s proposal is scheduled for Jan. 14 in Senate Transportation