The economic shutdown and transportation revenue

The economic shutdown and transportation revenue
Even though I-976 has been invalidated, the state still faces a revenue drop from most of its funding sources due to the economic shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: freepik.com

Prior to its defeat via a State Supreme Court decision, Initiative 976 would have reduced Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) revenue by $421 million for the current 2019-21 biennium. Though the initiative has been declared void, the state is still facing an even greater revenue loss from its funding sources due to the economic shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to 2017-19, total revenue for the current biennium is expected to decrease as follows:

  • From $3.6 billion to $3.4 billion in gas tax revenue;
  • From $426 million to $375 million in tolling revenue;
  • From $400 million to $329 million in ferry service revenue; and
  • From $1.5 billion to $1.17 billion in vehicle licenses, permits and fee revenue.

In addition to a current 10 percent decrease in overall state highway traffic levels – compared to 22 percent in May – WSDOT is also reporting a 36 percent decrease in toll facility uses, a 37 percent drop in ferry ridership, and a staggering 91 percent reduction in passenger rail use compared to the same time period in 2019.

Annual total miles driven aren’t expected to reach what WSDOT originally forecasted in 2019 for those years until 2038, though both driving and gas tax revenue is expected to increase in the next biennium.

The state gas tax is the primary source of transportation funding in Washington state, making up almost half of the total revenue. That money is constitutionally protected from being used for any purposes other than highway projects and was unaffected by I-976. Much of the existing revenue is specifically dedicated to highway projects such as the 2015 Connecting Washington plan.

For WSDOT, future revenue projections are one of several factors to be accounted for in its latest update of the state Highway System Plan (HSP), which is one part of the Washington Transportation Plan.  The last time the HSP was updated was 2007. In the meantime, a state advisory panel is currently looking for potential new transportation revenue sources.

One concern among WSDOT planners is how to bridge the existing gap between road maintenance and preservation needs and the money to pay for those items. Currently just $.08 of the state’s $.49 per-gallon gas tax collected is used to upgrade, maintain, and preserve the state road infrastructure.

“We’re spending less than half of what we should to take care of the system that we have,” WSDOT Multimodal Planning Division Director Kerri Woehler said at an Oct. 20 meeting of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

WSTC’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 17-18.

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