State Transportation Package

Background

The transportation package comes through the legislature, and contains money for capital projects, often a compromise of money spent on highways, ferries, and other infrastructure, often funded with a new revenue source. In 2015 the transportation package (Connecting Washington) included an increased gas tax, which was bonded to fund, among other projects the SR-167 expansion, the new SR-520 bridge, widening parts of I-405, I-395 completion to I-90. That was the bulk of the funding, but there was also money for some multi-modal improvements, including the Safe Routes to School program, Complete Streets, and grants to local transit authorities. The State ferry system got improvements, and there was money for building culverts to improve fish passage. In addition to all that, the transportation package also authorized new sources of funding for Regional Transportation Districts.

There was a big push to pass an analogous package last year, but legislators were unable to come together on a bill. A small group of democratic legislators has been continuing to negotiate during the break. It is possible that there will be a special session in Nov. that will approve a package, but it is much more likely that there will be another attempt to pass a package in the 2022 Legislative Session. In order to sell bonds to finance projects, there would need to be a 60% majority in favor, which requires bipartisan support. To avoid this, Democratic lawmakers have been considering alternatives methods of funding.

Principles to Consider

Here are some of my thoughts on the principles that should shape a statewide transportation strategy.

  • Every resident should have access to some form of transportation that will meet their daily needs. This includes people who do not drive, people who are disabled, people who are elderly, children, people who cannot afford a car.

  • Transit is the backbone of the economy, because without it many workers cannot get to their jobs. Transit is also required in urban areas because there is not enough physical space for everyone to use cars. So transit must be funded, it is not an optional extra.

  • Highways are also required. Without them, many people can't get where they need to go, and freight cannot be delivered. In many places, highways are not the cheapest way to fulfill these needs, and we should work towards developing more efficient and cost effective alternatives.

  • Our transportation system covers multiple modes of transportation, and all should be supported by the statewide system. Within an urban area, or between urban and suburban, prioritize pedestrian, transit, rolling, freight over personal vehicles. For urban to urban transportation, continue to support vehicles, but develop alternatives utilizing trains. Within a suburban area, allow for personal vehicles, but make pedestrian, transit, rolling safer and more convenient as part of a continuous process. Within rural areas, personal vehicles have priority, but other modes of transportation should be possible. For freight, expand the use of trains where possible.

  • Our current highway system should be maintained at a high level of service. We should not worry that the roads are unsafe or decaying. Where roads are highly congested, we should look at methods for solving the congestion that do not lead to increased use of single occupancy vehicles. When expanding a highway, because of expanding population, expansion should be for transit and high capacity vehicles only, and this should be comprehensively and automatically enforced.

We should keep in mind that expanding a road is committing to higher maintenance costs in the future. These higher maintenance costs should be accounted for in the funding package. We should also decommission roads and bridges that we are not willing to pay to maintain.

What we're looking for in the Package

  • More progressive funding possibilities for Regional Transportation Districts (RTD). RTDs should have more options for raising revenue, and they should be authorized to receive revenue from multiple sources. This could be important particularly for King County, which is considering how to raise more revenue for Metro. Here's more oon this from the Washington Climate Alliance.

  • Increased funding for multi-modal projects.

  • Electric and hybrid cars should be charged on a VMT-basis, not a flat fee.

  • WSDOT should accelerate their plans for switching to VMT charges for all vehicles. These funds should be available for all transportation options.

  • No highway expansion – funds should go to road maintenance only. Additional lanes that are transit and county vanpools only should be allowed, if there is thorough and automatic photo-enforcement. Additions beyond that will simply add to our GHG emissions.

  • Sometimes state routes are rerouted so they don't go through downtown areas. This should make the downtown areas safer, and it also reduces congestion because there are now two major roads going through the same area. Moving a road should be accompanied by pedestrian/cycling improvements on the old road, where there should now be increased capacity.

Highway Projects under consideration

WSDOT estimates it needs $10B total over the next 10 years to maintain the current road system at the minimum acceptable level. "Years of under funding, maintenance and preservation -- and adding more capacity to our system without dedicated maintenance and preservation to go along with those projects -- has created the condition the system is in today." Note that this $10B is for the parts of the transportation system run by WSDOT only; it does not include funding local jurisdictions typically get.

In particular, these two large projects are leading candidates for receiving funding:

WSDOT released a 2021-23 report on state transportation maintenance requirements. There are also slides from a Joint Transportation Committee meeting in 2019 on the need to maintain our current system "WSDOT's transportation system is on a glide path to failure" that emphasizes the need for preservation and maintenance.

Timeline

Nov. 15-19 Assembly Days. This is when the Legislature could convene, and when caucuses will meet to hammer our priorities for the session

Budgets for Highways

The Federal Government has a Highway Trust Fund that accounts for one quarter of all spending on roads and highways, with the remaining three quarters funded by state and local governments. The Highway Trust Fund makes grants to state and local governments, and has two separate accounts, one for highways and one for mass transit. The Highway Trust fund is funded mainly by the federal gas and diesel taxes. These taxes have not been raised in 1993, while construction costs have increased, and vehicle gas usage (and therefore revenue per mile driven) has decreased. The resulting gap in funding is bridged in part with transfers from general revenue, and possibly also by reduced maintenance.

Point/Counterpoint On Expansion

Expansion is necessary to reduce congestion.

Expansion is necessary for public safety, to insure emergency vehicles are not delayed.

Widening a bridge allows more traffic and sprawl along all the feeder routes into the bridge.

Express toll lanes are not open to everyone.

Adding new HOV lanes is reducing emissions by encouraging carpooling.

In the Media

Proposed Packages in 2021

Right now there are three or four competing visions that have put out.

The governor wants $318 million for ferry electrification, $20 million for pedestrian, bike and school-zone improvements, and $3.25 million for planning future high-speed rail.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, is bringing back Forward Washington, a large package of $16.6 billion over 10 years, including $3.175 billion for the I-5 Columbia River Crossing, $1.5 billion for a new west-bound trestle and widening for Highway 2, $1.7 billion for ferries, terminals and veseel electrification, $1 billion for highway preservation, $470 to widen I-405 through Bothell, and $300 million to widen Highway 3 at Gorst on the Kitsap Peninsula. He is also apparently willing to spend $75 million on the West Seattle Bridge.

Sen Rebecca Saldaña, the vice chair of the Transportation Committee, has drafted Evergreen Washington, a 12-year $14.3 billion plan. It would fund $1.9 billion for highway maintenance, but contains no widening projects except for the Highway 2 trestle. Her plan would get funding from carbon fees, as well as a tax on luxury planes and yachts.

Sen. Mark Mullett wants $285 million to widen Highway 18 along Tiger Mountain, which is part of Hobbs's plan, and to expand the interchange where I-90 meets I-405 in order to reduce congestion.

Republicans want no new taxes.

And there is a requirement for money for fixing culverts to improve fish passage.