Cracked concrete: A fix-it-first warning for Olympia

If state lawmakers want us to weigh in on a proposal (and taxes) to fund new transportation projects, they better make sure the plan includes fixing our crumbling roads and bridges.
Crosscut archive image.

Cracked concrete on I-5

If state lawmakers want us to weigh in on a proposal (and taxes) to fund new transportation projects, they better make sure the plan includes fixing our crumbling roads and bridges.

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Should Olympia send voters a gas tax incr­ease to support a big transportation spending package? My answer is yes but, then again, maybe. 

Yes, because the transportation system is desperate for dollars. Almost all future revenues from the gas tax increases passed in 2003 and 2005 have been pledged to repay the bonds sold for upfront construction of more than 400 projects around the state. Everyone understood this money would go almost entirely to pay for those projects, and nothing else, until the bonds were paid off decades in the future.

Now, as promised, those projects are largely complete — or about to be. No more money or projects from those higher gas tax rates. We’re back to a system that lacks sufficient ongoing and future funding, a byproduct of the 1999, Tim Eyman proposition I-695. So, yes, the legislature should craft a new transportation-funding package. And that will require giving voters a say on new taxes. 

Now for the maybe part.

The problem with our transportation finance system today isn’t just about raising new money. It’s about raising and spending that money wisely. With money scarce and state taxpayers skeptical, legislators still have to show us they can meet that test by committing precious dollars to the most important things.

If they can do that, then voters should be asked to approve new taxes. But so far neither legislators nor the self-appointed transportation stakeholders clamoring for a revenue-and-spending package have shown a clear eye for a good proposal. Political Olympia hears the siren song of big new transportation projects. But any observant citizen forced to endure the jarring ride on many of our main roads knows that the more pressing need is to maintain, repair and rehabilitate the roads and bridges we already have.

Let’s look first at the system, then at the money. 

To the extent transportation works at all, it’s due to the infrastructure we already own and use every day. The existing network was built over decades at a cost of billion and billions of dollars. If that system falls apart, then a few new projects tacked on to the existing crumbling roads scattered around the state hardly matter. 

Our roads and highways are in serious trouble from neglect of maintenance and repair. That undeniable truth is evident in your pocked windshield, battered shock absorbers and bruised suspension. We can barely pay the maintenance costs of clearing culverts, replacing guardrails and keeping lanes safely and brightly marked. Forget the bigger expense of refurbishing pavements. Rural roads that used to get new asphalt overlays every 15 years now, for lack of money, are lucky if they get resurfaced with compacted oil-on-gravel that’s good for only seven. 

The problem is much more greivous for the heavily traveled interstate routes: highways that, in many stretches, are built of thousands after thousands of poured concrete panels laid end to end. These panels were expected to last 50 years. I-5 through Seattle opened in 1967 — 46 years ago. The old concrete pavements on the big roads are in dismal condition. Piecemeal replacement of broken panels and grinding ruts and cracks out of others, as WSDOT is doing along I-5 through the University District right now, are just stopgap measures.

Crosscut archive image.
Replacing concrete panels on I-5

The state’s 2,400 lane miles of aging concrete pavement — mostly the interstates — constitute less than one-sixth of the state’s total lane miles, but they carry 27 percent of the traffic. Almost 10 percent of those concrete pavements are in poor or very poor condition. In the last two years, WSDOT fixed 96 lane miles. That’s hardly enough to offset two year’s worth of added wear and tear, so notwithstanding, repairs, the total miles of poor and very poor concrete pavement continue to grow.


For the next two years there is now money enough to fix only 55 additional miles. Down the slippery slope we go, under an ever more ominous fiscal overhang: As the condition of pavement degrades from poor to very poor, more and more miles will need fixing and the per-mile cost will continue to shoot up because the necessary work will demand more intensive reconstruction.

This bad news is no secret. In a report to the Federal Highway Administration, WSDOT reported that vehicles in Washington traveled 700 million more miles on unacceptably rough – very poor – roads in 2011 than they did  in 2010, the most recent period for which comparison is available. On county system arterials, poor and very poor lane miles doubled from 2006-2012. (City data is incomplete because the legislature acceded to a plea to lighten cities’ accountability reporting requirements.)

Rough roads take their toll (speaking of expensive tolls!) on every driver’s vehicle. An independent national research organization estimates that rough roads each year cost the average Washington vehicle owner $277 in wear and tear and repairs. That adds up to $1.35 billion across the state! To say nothing of the toll on safety, comfort and delay.   

The public knows the problem well. Customers in a big WSDOT survey in 2012 listed roadway surface as their first maintenance priority; pavement satisfaction slipped from 76 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2012.

Of course, this isn’t just about pavements. Well-maintained stream culverts and drainage catch basins are critical to safe traffic operations on highways, to say nothing of minimizing ill effects on adjoining wetlands, streams and water bodies. In 2012, WSDOT completed just 61 percent of planned maintenance and inspection of catch basins and just 77 percent of planned culvert work. And let’s not forget bridges, although WSDOT wishes it could. The department completed just 60 percent of planned structural maintenance work on bridges in 2012.

As for the money part of the problem, the story can be told in numerous ways.

In 2011, former Governor Chris Gregoire appointed the Connecting Washington task force to make transportation recommendations to the legislature. Its final report called for $21 billion of new investment in preservation and other transportation projects over 10 years.

Late in 2011, Gov. Gregoire submitted a stripped down version, calling for a $3.8 billion overall 10-year investment. Her proposal got no legislative traction.

The following year, the business-oriented Washington Roundtable weighed in. Roundtable members are acutely sensitive to the impact of poor transportation systems on the economic competitiveness of state businesses. Its report, that I assisted in preparing, concluded that the legislative spending plans now on the books for the next decade would underfund daily highway maintenance and operations efficiencies by 28 percent, a more than $900 million 10-year gap.  

Further, taking into account the gloomy estimates for future federal highway assistance, the spending projections for the next decade would underfund pavement and bridge rehabilitation and refurbishment by 83 percent, a more than $1.8 billion 10-year gap. That analysis was for the state highway system only. It did not count the equally serious needs of local city and county roads, or the $300 million — at a minimum — for the ferry system. And as any King County Metro rider knows, the bus system needs help, whether it’s paving the streets buses run on, repairing the sidewalks on which we run to catch them or buying new buses as the old ones wear out.

To put these funding gaps in perspective, consider that adding, say, five cents to the gas tax generates just $155 million a year in additional tax collections. Now, consider that this revenue stream will shrink if people continue to drive less and switch to electric cars, and as fuel efficiency standards go up for all other new cars sold.    

If we secured the Washington Roundtable’s modest target of $2.8 billion in new funding for the highway maintenance and preservation, that would improve today’s barely tolerable road conditions only slightly: By 2023, only 31 percent of the state highway system would be in fair, poor or very poor condition, about the same as today. Without the called-for level of additional funding, fully 85 percent of state pavements would be in fair, poor or very poor condition by 2023, with almost a third of all pavements falling into the very poor category. That’s eight times worse than today’s level, in just 10 years. 

So far, the discussion this session in Olympia has shown much too little attention to the maintenance and preservation crisis. The first roll-out of the proposed House Transportation Committee plan for $10 billion in new spending would include just $633 million in additional monies over a decade for state highway system maintenance, operations and preservation. That’s a paltry fraction of the need – and an irresponsibly small portion of a 10-year proposed spending package of $10 billion.

Meanwhile, funding hugely expensive new road projects dropped here and there around the state, would add even more to the road systems we already can’t keep in good repair.

In the weeks since its announcement, the wheels seem to have gone wobbly on this transportation proposal and how exactly it might be shaped is still unclear, but the emphasis still appears to be on new projects, at the expense of maintenance and preservation of existing infrastructure.

One would hope, of course, that if the legislature plans to send a proposal to voters, it would pay close attention to what voters think. Respondents in big statewide surveys commissioned by the State Transportation Commission in 2011 called maintaining and repairing existing roads and highways their highest priority by a wide margin. In 2012, when asked how new transportation dollars should be spent, respondents voted almost twice as much for preservation as for new capacity projects.

If those surveys reflect voter sentiment, voters are in good company. Smart Growth America — a very selective proponent of transportation funding – stresses the fiscal shortsightedness of neglecting maintenance and preservation. A roadway fix that could cost $1 when done in good time, can cost $6-14 when delayed until deterioration is extreme.

This view appears to be held by transportation observers across the political spectrum. On the left, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has laid out the convincing case for a “fix it first” transportation investment. On the right, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strikes the same emphasis. 

Surely these sentiments should be reflected in a transportation proposal from Olympia this session. Republican Ray LaHood, ex-Illinois Congressman and outgoing Secretary of the federal Department of Transportation, put it colorfully when he said that Americans would support a rational fix-it-first policy “because they know that America is one big pothole right now.” 

If legislators can design and adopt a transportation package that addresses the issue this simply, starkly and compellingly, then and only then should they ask voters to endorse it.  








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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.