Road construction

(The Center Square) – One of the major issues lawmakers will grapple with during next year’s session of the Washington State Legislature is transportation.

The issue has been front and center in the news, with Washington state set to receive $8.6 billion under the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by Congress earlier this year and signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is still dealing with the effects of losing more than 400 employees in October to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

A recent study by the Reason Foundation ranked Washington state 42nd in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness. The study found that the state spends far more per mile of road than most states. But Washington estimates what it is spending is not enough.

In 2019, the legislature requested a study to assess statewide transportation needs and priorities from 2022 through 2031 and identify existing and potential transportation funding mechanisms to address those needs and priorities.

According to a July 2020 Phase I Joint Transportation Committee report, Washington state has chronically underfunded transportation and has no clear path to determining funding sources. Car tab fees and gas taxes currently generate the majority of revenue for transportation packages.

Some say it’s time to do away with the current transportation funding process in which lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects like highway expansions or major road repairs, which garner more attention than expanding transit services or improving pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.

For instance, Alex Hudson, executive director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said during a Nov. 17 appearance on TVW’s “The Impact” that the state needs to “transform how it is we do transportation.”

She characterized the state’s transportation efforts as “far short of fully investing” to the tune of “less than half of what it needs.”

Hudson said less than 4% of the transportation budget goes to public transit.

“We need to flip the way we’re investing in our existing infrastructure,” she said.

That would translate into more short-term investments in the current public transit system and a long-term commitment to addressing climate change by building communities that don’t require people to own and drive automobiles.

“Triple A estimates that to own, maintain, and operate a vehicle in Washington state costs the average Washingtonian $10,000 a year,” Hudson said.

As for Washington state’s slice of the federal infrastructure bill – including $4.7 billion for highway programs, $1.79 billion for public transportation, and $605 million for bridge replacement and repairs – Hudson said that accelerates the need for the legislature to fund transportation projects because some of that federal money comes with rules over matching grants meant to stretch those dollars.

Mariya Frost, director of the Coles Center for Transportation for the Washington Policy Center, has a different point of view.

“I think the real priority for the legislature next session should be road improvement, maintenance and preservation, and congestion relief,” she said on the same TVW program. “Those really need to take top priority.”

Frost noted public transit agencies collected $3.8 billion in sales and local taxes, a 192% increase over the last decade, a figure she said does not include federal dollars. In the 2021-2023 biennium the state will generate $3.3 billion per year from drivers who pay for roads, which is “clear evidence that transit is not chronically underfunded, and really should stop asking the state for more money.”

Furthermore, the state should stop supporting policies that attempt to reduce driving by making it more expensive to get around in a car, she said, before noting the incongruous nature of those policies.

“If lawmakers are going to continue to support policies that chip away at our ability to drive, then they cannot complain when they receive less revenue from driving,” Frost said. “This is a major policy conflict that has to be resolved in the transportation funding discussion.”

She does not expect federal funding to improve how the state prioritizes spending transportation dollars, particularly as it relates to public transit.

“This is money that will incentivize business as usual,” Frost said, pointing out that Sound Transit is 75% below its baseline ridership, while King County Metro is 36% below its baseline ridership.

Given the friction between these competing visions for transportation in Washington state, what will lawmakers do next year?

“There does appear to be an effort underway to prioritize maintenance and preservation,” Frost told The Center Square in an email, pointing to state Rep. Andrew Barkis’ announcement he will be introducing, along with several of his House Republican colleagues, the Reprioritizing Existing Appropriations for Longevity (REAL) Act at the start of the 2022 legislative session.

Barkis is the ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee.

REAL “attempts to reimagine transportation funding to better support M&P (maintenance and preservation) and road improvement programs,” Frost said.

However, Democrats currently control both houses of the state legislature.

“Our main transportation priorities for 2022 are largely the same as those we had in 2021,” Democratic Sen. Rebecca Saldana, vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in an email response to The Center Square.

Those priorities include preservation and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure, including the ferry system; investments in key mega projects like the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River and dozens of other rebuilds and repairs of bridges and roadways in poor condition; addressing stormwater runoff related to salmon recovery and environmental stewardship; and recovering from the pandemic by backfilling lost toll and fee revenues to keep multimodal and freight projects on track.

“At the same time, we need to hold our investments accountable by working towards the safety goal of Target Zero, and maintaining good financial accountability for general contractors,” Saldana said.

Target Zero is a plan with the goal to reduce the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries on Washington's roadways to zero by the year 2030.

Federal funds courtesy of the infrastructure bill will help Washington state, she said.

“It is important to remember that the $8.6 billion is not all new spending from the federal government,” Saldana wrote. “The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) included new funding as well as existing dedicated funding automatically allocated to pre-existing programs. In fact, the numbers are nebulous at this point, but we estimate that the IIJA will provide Washington with around $3 billion of new money over the next five years.”

IIJA funds, however, are not a fix-all.

“The new funds allocated to the state will help address the local and state backlog of preservation and maintenance projects, provide for investments to improve our ferry system, meet our court-mandated duty to fix culverts to allow fish passage, and develop high-capacity transportation systems like Bus Rapid Transit, as well as passenger rail,” Saldana noted. “However, it’s important to remember that one-time federal money alone is not adequate to address our declining gas revenues, increases in the cost of materials and labor, and an aging, retiring workforce.”

Washington state’s 60-day 2022 legislative session starts on January 10.

Staff Reporter

Brett Davis reports on Washington state government for The Center Square. He previously worked for public policy organizations the Freedom Foundation and Washington Farm Bureau, as well as various community newspapers.