Stakeholders urge caution in proposal to restructure transportation funding

Stakeholders urge caution in proposal to restructure transportation funding
HB 2688 would require the legislature to receive a stamp of approval from a group of state agencies before funding any transportation project in its budget. Photo: freepik.com

State lawmakers have proposed to grant considerable new powers to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) regarding highway funding. Under HB 2688 sponsored by Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-44), legislators would have to receive the green light from WSDOT before any projects could be included in the transportation budget. The proposal also notably removes congestion relief and mobility from among WSDOT’s goals, while at the same time adding new goals such as greenhouse gas emission reduction, safety and accessibility.

If passed, the bill would represent a significant policy shift already hinted at by WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar, who has previously said congestion relief is impossible and building new roads makes traffic even worse, a concept known as “induced demand.”

Shewmake reiterated that sentiment at a Jan. 22 public hearing of the House Transportation Committee. “If we keep building more and more lanes…then we’re going to keep on having more and more congestion, so instead of continuing to build our roads…what we need to be doing is we need to be looking at this holistically.” She added that her bill is “partially a conversation starter, and it’s hard to really imagine what that’s going to look like.”

Under her bill, all proposed transportation projects would be evaluated by an analysis through WSDOT as well as the state Department of Health, Ecology, Commerce and Washington state ferries. The analysis would also have to account for public input from “vulnerable populations in highly impacted communities” as determined by the Department of Health.

Among the criteria would be newly added goals under the bill, including:

  • Improve affordable access to the places and goods Washington residents, organizations, and businesses need to live, work, study, play, and pray;
  • Promote healthy people and communities through pollution-free transportation, multimodal transportation, integrated land use and transportation projects, clean active transportation, and appropriate infrastructure; and
  • Eliminate historic and persistent barriers…for highly impacted communities and vulnerable populations, which includes direct inclusion in decision making.

“Instead of each one of us cobbling together a transportation system, we can work through a process that will have us get at our values to have us get out what we’re trying to accomplish, and then work through these metrics together,” Shewmake said.

However, Rep. Jesse Young (R-26) told her: “your bill is not allowing us to do it – you’re giving it to the executive branch departments that are hired by the governor or his staff and not us.” He also questioned some of the proposed new WSDOT goals. “My constituents fundamentally care about being able to afford the tolls on the bridge and being able to get in and be able to make their payments and put gas in their cars so they can feed their families.”

Also skeptical was Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-2). “Do you feel there needs to be more planning? We have more planning today than we’ve ever seen.”

Shewmake said she envisions “a planning system that really looks at where we’re standing right now…time to evaluate these processes, especially in the light of where we’re seeing gas tax revenues; we’re seeing them decrease over time, and we’re seeing that we’re not spending enough money on preservation.”

Speaking in support of the bill was WSDOT Deputy Secretary Keith Metcalf. He told the committee that the proposed new goals “align with our strategic plan,” adding that the bill would create a “rigorous, performance-based assessment as part of providing a better path to ensuring the best projects are selected and funded. Preserving our system in a state of good repair…are our top priorities. Oour ability to address those priorities are dependent on the funding levels provided in each budget. We need to fix it first.”

However, Association of Washington Business (AWB) Government Policy Director Mike Ennis warned that the bill “bill attempts to prohibit lawmakers from funding transportation projects. We strongly oppose stripping any discretion away from the legislature in funding transportation projects.”

He also noted several of the proposed new goals “are not defined and remain very ambiguous. I’m pretty certain DOT would not know how to interpret them. I don’t know how you would implement something like that through a budget.”

Voicing a similar opinion was Jerry VanderWood with the Associated General Contractors of Washington. “I really do think it does transfer authority from the legislature to the executive branch. We shouldn’t shy away from rethinking our priorities and how we do transportation…but I do think that this has the executive doing the rethinking of that and the implementing.”

The policy shift away from congestion relief and mobility was criticized by Washington Trucking Association President Sheri Call. “We can’t afford to minimize the importance of freight mobility for our roadways. Washington must continue to deliver projects…keep our economy moving forward.”

No further action is scheduled for HB 2688.

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