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    Funding shaky for state program to earthquake-proof bridges

    The state's budget for seismically upgrading bridges could drop from about $22 million to roughly $4 million next year.

    Funds for strengthening western Washington's bridges against earthquake damage could drop significantly in the next budget cycle, according to the state's transportation department.

    For over two decades, the Washington State Department of Transportation has reinforced bridges with additional steel and concrete in an attempt to make them less susceptible to catastrophic collapses and other, less severe, structural failures during earthquakes.

    WSDOT has retrofitted 286 bridges as of late August; an additional 478 spans are still in need of seismic upgrades. But two major funding sources that have helped pay for this work are about to run dry. As a result, the amount of money WSDOT expects to have available for these projects in the next budget cycle is currently slated to decline by about 80 percent.

    In the 2011-2013 cycle, the agency spent roughly $18.7 million on retrofits. Between 2013-2015, the retrofit budget was around $22 million. The amount WSDOT plans to include for seismic retrofits in its 2015-2017 budget request, a figure based on the agency's anticipated funding constraints, is about $4 million. A WSDOT spokesperson said that because the cost of retrofit projects varies widely, it is not possible to project how many bridges could be upgraded with this lower level of funding.

    According to state bridge and structures engineer, Tom Baker, the immediate public safety hazards posed by un-retrofitted bridges is relatively low. "If our bridges are open, they're safe," he said during an interview last week. "I'm not concerned driving around western Washington, worrying about the structures under me collapsing in an earthquake."

    As of August, WSDOT's seismic retrofit program included 913 bridges. Most of the 478 bridges still awaiting retrofits were built before 1980. Source: WSDOT 

    But the risks to motorists caught on a bridge span during a quake are not the only potential problem.

    "It's important that we have the bridges on key routes standing and usable after an earthquake," said Mark Stewart, a spokesperson for the Washington Military Department's Emergency Management Division. "It's not only for the emergency response, but to aid the recovery afterwards."

    A badly damaged bridge along a major corridor like Interstate 5 could not only handicap first responders. It might also snarl traffic and freight in the days and weeks after a quake while repairs take place, exacting an economic toll on the surrounding area.

    The financial uncertainty hanging over the seismic retrofit program is not unique. "It's one of many examples of why we need to pass a transportation revenue package," said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, vice co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

    The so-called "Nickel Package," which the Legislature adopted in 2003, and the 2005 Transportation Partnerships Act were key sources of cash fueling seismic retrofit projects in recent years. Now the work those funding measures helped pay for is coming to a close. "As that finishes," said WSDOT's Baker, "there aren't continuing funds to go and do more retrofits." 

    The Transportation Partnerships Act alone provided $87 million to upgrade 172 bridges in the central Puget Sound region. The account funded over 270 transportation projects during a 16-year period using gas tax and vehicle weight fee increases. The Nickel Package paid for 158 WSDOT projects over 10 years using the same revenue sources along with an increase in the sales tax on motor vehicles.

    Neither Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who co-chairs the state Senate's Transportation Committee, nor Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the House Transportation Committee chair, responded to requests for comment on Wednesday about the seismic retrofit program.

    While he emphasized that he was not an expert on the specifics of the transportation budget, Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who chairs the House Appropriations committee, echoed Hobbs's call for a new comprehensive revenue package to cover transportation costs. "We underfund maintenance on our roadways by a tremendous amount," he said. "We're going to have to find some new revenue in order to fund a new maintenance plan."

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    Posted Fri, Sep 5, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    The issue, to add to what Mr. Baker said about driving around western Washington, is maintaining the pavement (see also the Crosscut articles by Doug MacDonald and the recent article on Seattle's arterials) and expansion joints (the immediate needs) vs. earthquake retrofits (risk).

    Posted Fri, Sep 5, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Interesting article – thanks for writing and sharing! I really appreciate the insight Crosscut brings to my view of “civic society”.

    One item, likely minor, struck a odd note with me: Baker’s statement "We live in a society of scarce resources.”
    In my current world-view, this statement seems very odd. Has our nation ever enjoyed greater GDP? Have we ever had more people? Have we ever consumed more natural resources? How can we say that resources, fiscal, human, or natural, are scarce? (Yes, I know that natural resources are finite – but considering the way we consume natural resources as though they are limitless, please bear with me for the purposes of this argument.)
    It seems to me that we – our society - have made the decision to allocate resources from the public good to the private estate; and that we’re telling ourselves that we’re living in a world of scarcity. The fact that we used to share more resources (E.g., a higher proportion of our GDP as taxes) for the collective good seems curiously ignored. I think that’s weird. I think that we need to keep reminding ourselves that we, as a society, have chosen not to invest in things like these (bridge retrofits). It’s not scarcity – it’s a choice.
    Please discuss! I look forward to learning from the perspectives of others.



    Posted Sat, Sep 6, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    OK, I'll be happy to share my discussion. When you say "It seems to me that we – our society - have made the decision to allocate resources from the public good to the private estate..." you appear to be saying that you believe that the possession of all goods and resources fall to government and not the people. So when you say that the people ("society") are keeping ("allocating") their property ("resources") rather than surrendering them to an all-powerful state, this is somehow bad. Whether that opinion is benign or not, this has nothing to do with why the state has neglected the maintenance of our roads and highways. The state has plenty of revenue (just ask a taxpayer). What it does not have is the will to stand up to special interest groups (such as light raid advocates) and allocate transportation dollars for projects that actually transport people and goods.

    Please discuss!

    ...and share.


    Posted Sun, Sep 7, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    The state does not have "plenty of revenue." Remember that Washington is the 50th most regressive state for taxation. This means the rich get richer and middle class and poor get screwed. Further, your phrase "the all powerful state" is inaccurate. The "state" (governments at all levels) is mostly run by those with wealth (the top 1% and higher); as inequity increases, and the Supreme Court and other reactionary forces move us away from democratic governance, the wealthy more and more control governments.

    At the same time, the know nothing libertarian anti-government allies of the wealthy (the Republican coalition) are increasingly strangling governments into powerless dysfunction. This last trend is contrary to the interests of the top level capitalists, who need government to function to preserve their access to transportation paid for by the rest of us, courts to enforce their contracts and bought and paid for laws, and help with their ongoing privatization of the commons.

    The increasing scarcity of resources exacerbates the above trends and contradictions. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Also: William Ophuls' "Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity" (1977) and "Revisited" (1992).


    Posted Mon, Sep 8, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Further, your phrase "the all powerful state" is inaccurate."

    I did not say "the all powerful state", I said "an all-powerful state". There is a difference in the meaning of two constructions, you know. My construction refers back to the apparent mindset of the person I was responding to. Your construction postulates that such a state actually exists.


    Posted Tue, Sep 9, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    OK, you're right, there's a difference. I'm not sure what "mindset" of the prior commenter you're referencing.

    At the national level, both kinds of "all powerful states" have existed. In a complex global capitalist political economy, only the poorer countries have "an all powerful state" that governs locally. The major nations are so interlocked with each other ("globalism") and the oligarchic global financial system that their governments can no longer be called "the all powerful state" in the way Britain achieved in the late 1800s and the U.S. in the 1960s.

    The world system is clearly experiencing huge and increasing stresses in large part as a result of resource scarcity and will (probably) undergo a paradigm shift in the near to mid-term.


    Posted Mon, Sep 8, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Awesome! Thanks DB. I'm a little bit of a "Pollyanna" when it comes to government and democracy. I believe that government *is* us. And whether we've abdicated our place in government via laziness, lax campaign finance/corruption laws, or lack of interest, we have no one else to blame.
    I have no reason to point to government as a third party, "inflicting" itself on us. To me, there's no practical advantage to separating the people and the government - it doesn't create progress. I agree with your perspective that nothing will change unless people actively get involved and exert their influence.
    I'm a taxpayer and am appreciative of what our imperfect government delivers. Yes they can always do better; but I'm happy to pay my fair share and am willing to pay more. My personal health and well-being (and that of my fellow NW residents) depend on the health of our civil society. Transportation spending included!
    On a separate note, the intentional mis-spelling, typo or Freudian slip of "light raid advocates" was pretty funny.


    Posted Sun, Sep 7, 9:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    So the better steward of transportation dollars would be a private enterprise?


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