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Trans-poor-tation: Olympia’s $8.4 billion fail

Puget Sound Gateway Project Map Credit: WSDOT Credit: Credit: WSDOT

Editor's note: State lawmakers are currently debating a House proposal that could generate billions in new transportation spending over the next 12 years. This story is the first in a four-part series that looks at whether the proposal on the table really meets the needs on the street.

The year began with high hopes for a new transportation funding package from Olympia. 

Then the regular legislative session came and went. The two year business-as-usual transportation budget passed, with no steps to increase spending and little change from prior fixed spending expectations.  

The single stamp from Governor Jay Inslee’s administration, a salutary one right from his campaign playbook, came in the form of a directive to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT): Pilot a lean management, right-sizing initiative that relies on data (novel idea) to shape and prioritize the highway construction wish-list and takes account of available funding, not just locally desired needs and results. 

Despite talk aplenty about new transportation revenues, no new monies emerged during the regular session. But new funding for transportation could get a second chance in the 30-day special session that began this week. Discussion will likely center on the proposal floated by the House Transportation Committee for a dime a gallon tax increase over four years. Along with other modest revenues and a lot of up-front bonding of future gas tax receipts, those new funds could generate $8.4 billion of new spending over the next 12 years. 

Governor Inslee has joined the chorus supporting many of the House Transportation Committee proposals. His transportation investment principles echo popular pro-transportation themes: the importance of transportation infrastructure to job creation and long-term economic vitality, the “Fix it First” mantra for arresting the decay of existing infrastructure and a “finish what we’ve started” mentality as the first principle of project investment. Judged against those principles, however, the design of the $8.4 billion House Transportation proposal, the likely springboard for special session debate, is at best peculiar and at worst deeply disappointing. 

It’s been eight years since state lawmakers enacted the last significant transportation revenue package (in 2005). If a new package passes, it will likely be years before the issue ripens again. In other words, this might be our last chance in a long while to get important things done right. So let’s take a close look at what’s on the table.

A puzzling proposal

The greatest puzzle in the current proposal is that it does little, if anything, to pick up the pace of fixing the state’s deteriorating pavements, bridges and other existing transportation facilities. The package’s promotion advertises top priority to the crisis of maintenance and preservation of existing infrastructure — and everyone has taken that pledge of allegiance. Yet, the package authors dedicate only 11 percent of the total new money infusion to the “Fix It First” objective.

That’s financial miles short of the widely held consensus about the need. In fact, it’s a prescription for further, unavoidable and accelerating decay of the current transportation system, effectively guaranteeing more crumbling roads and huge future costs for eventually setting things right.  

Worse yet, under the rubric of maintenance and preservation, the package would spend $700 million on stormwater runoff fixes for highways. Previously, this kind of stormwater work was always in a separate spending category. The environmental value of stormwater work on that scale is deservedly complicated and controversial, but this much is beyond argument: Legislation in which stormwater runoff fixes eat up most of the new money for highway maintenance and preservation is virtually no help at all for deteriorating pavements and bridges. 

But the real surprise in the package is how much of the new money would be spent on a bunch of new projects, and how a single new project dominates the list.

The meteoric rise of Puget Sound Gateway

Both the House package and Governor Inslee propose elevating, right to the top of the new 12-year funding list, a $3 billion whopper mega-project. It’s called the Puget Sound Gateway Project. (Not to be confused with the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal project, which is being considered for Bellingham.)

This big new Puget Sound Gateway Project is a case study of how myth can displace analysis and join with the muscle of old-fashioned highway lobby politics to throw big money at investments that are not the best use of scarce dollars.

Granted, it takes a lot of votes to get a package through Olympia. That means a lot of political log-rolling of a distinctly local flavor. In the case of the new Puget Sound Gateway Project, legislators from Pierce and south King County in particular have allied to enter the game hand-in-hand. 

They built their case by rebranding two long-mooted, never-funded, very expensive old-fashioned highway projects that had strong local appeal. As solo initiatives, neither project had gotten very far. Together, they have shot to the head of the funding class.

The first, the old SR 509 project, builds a new highway and big new I-5 intersection to connect I-5 from Des Moines to SR 509 in Burien. Why? So that I-5 freight can more easily get to and from the air cargo facilities at the Port of Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport and even the Seattle docks. 

The second is the old SR 167 project. It creates a useful highway link for the Port of Tacoma by constructing a huge new I-5 interchange at Fife. There’s more: a new stretch of highway would be built, generally eastward, from I-5 at Fife to the existing four-lane SR 167, which has long dead-ended in Puyallup. That new shortcut would shave a few minutes off truck trips between I-5 and the big freight distribution warehouses in Puyallup, Sumner and the Kent. 

To earn its grand Puget Sound Gateway moniker, however, the project’s architects added a fillip that widens a short stretch of I-5 itself with a new toll lane between SR 167 in Fife and SR 509 in Des Moines, perhaps even to Tukwila. Revenue from this toll lane is supposed to help pay for the project’s all-in $3 billion price ticket. 

Policymaking by myth

Political mojo, and not the inherent power of connecting roadway dots, has elevated this huge endeavor to its top rank in the scramble for scarce transportation dollars in a new package: in particular, the combined forces of the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle.

Their alliance harnesses the full power of a potent, popular syllogism. Its major premise is an oft-repeated adage: Washington is the nation’s most trade-dependent state. Second premise: Encouraging trade is our most powerful lever for keeping and growing jobs. Conclusion: No transportation tool is better for job growth than investing in the competitive vitality of the big Puget Sound ports.

The adage about trade dependency is actually true. But its nexus with the two big ports is largely unexamined myth.

Here’s the starter kit of myth-buster facts: 

  • Half the value of this state’s trade exports, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is civilian aircraft, a not surprising revelation for a state that is home to a Boeing manufacturing hub. The enormous value of Boeing’s Washington exports flies — on each new aircraft’s own power — out of Paine Field in Everett and the Renton Municipal Airport. Not the ports.
  • Washington's second largest trade export in 2012 wasn’t our homegrown apples or potatoes.It was soybean meal.  Soybeans are grown and soybean meal processed in Midwest states and shipped through Washington (on Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains) to a big soybean export terminal in Grays Harbor. Like Boeing airplanes, a good thing, even a great thing. But not a Puget Sound Gateway thing.
  • On the import side, 30 percent of imports to the state cross the border from Canada, not via the Puget Sound ports. Crude oil and natural gas, which alone account for more than a quarter of Washington imports, mostly come by tanker to the refineries, or by pipeline. Neither has much to do with the Puget Sound Gateway.

This glimpse of data shows that the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, important though they may be to the state and to their own immediate localities, are just mid-sized ports, not together the Atlas carrying the state’s economic health. If their tonnages were combined, these two ports would rank only 15th in the country. As for air cargo, Sea-Tac is only the nation’s 18th busiest cargo airport. Two-thirds as much air cargo moves out of the 24th busiest, and in many ways more convenient Boeing Field.   

But these facts have done little to muffle the political drum beating for the $3 billion port-centered Puget Sound Gateway Project. And the ports aren’t the only special interests lining up behind the new mega-project.

The SR 167 expansion has always enjoyed fan backing from the real estate industry, especially in Pierce County. Standing in Fife on today’s minor overpass astride I-5 near Hylebos Creek, it’s easy to see why.

This is ground zero for the Puget Sound Gateway’s huge projected I-5 and SR 167 interchange. A single panoramic sweep takes in huge new trucking distribution warehouses already crowding in on fragile acres of remnant farm fields, which the project will re-purpose into pavement for the massive new interchange. But that’s only the nearby view.

Visible just ten miles or so distant, on the hills in the direction of Mt. Rainier, are the old timberlands of unincorporated Pierce County between Bonney Lake and Orting. There, emblematic of the real estate zest for SR 167 extension to I-5, you can spot the first new houses of Tehaleh. That's the 4,000-acre dvelopment zoned for 5,900 new homes and aiming for thousands of new residents. Tehaleh is expected to be the biggest such development in the state, bigger even than Snoqualmie Ridge or Redmond Ridge. 

Better known by many as Cascadia — its name before it went through bankruptcy and into the hands of mega-developer Newland Communities) — Tehaleh and other existing and planned developments in the area are auto-dependent sprawl in unincorporated Pierce County, pushing ever eastward toward the Cascade foothills. No transit here; two-car garages are standard issue; three are available for the asking. 

The Puget Sound Gateway Project is hugely important to these developers, desperate for that one essential “amenity” your gas tax dollars will provide: a shortcut home from I-5.

Today that trip is a tortuous, congested, time-wasting, gas-guzzling dis-amenity. SR 167 improvements solve only part of the problem, but they do help. Or hurt, depending on one’s point of view on the desirability of old-fashioned, highway lobby road investment smoothing the way for an explosion of development that is wholly antithetical to the Puget Sound region’s transportation/land use sustainability. 

Is this the best way to spend $3 billion over many future years? 

The proposed new package in Olympia offers just a 12-year down payment on the Puget Sount Gateway's f $1.3 billion cost, and that’s only for Phase 1 with modest objectives toward overall goals. It’s still the largest item in the proposed package of project investments, which is curious considering the Puget Sound Gateway Project has only incomplete concept designs; rough, early stage cost estimates; a half-baked finance plan and sufficiently minimal public exposure that most people have never heard of it.

Sounds like a good case for applying some of that right-sizing, lean management and cost-reduction scrutiny Governor Inslee has been talking up — and the legislature just asked for more of from WSDOT.  

Indeed, with that kind of approach maybe the project’s most important features for freight movement could be preserved in a less expensive, less extensive undertaking that would mesh more comfortably with the core principles of sustainability and efficiency that the new administration in Olympia professes to embrace.

Coming tomorrow: Getting our priorities straight.

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