Finish what we’ve started. That’s the catchphrase being bandied about in Olympia as state legislators debate how to raise and spend new transportation dollars.
The proposal they’re discussing – during the special legislative session that got underway this week – would use a new dime a gallon gas tax to help generate $8.4 billion over 12 years.
The most compelling way to spend those dollars is not on new projects, but on the maintenance and preservation of existing infrastructure. Yet the package under discussion, proposed by the House Transportation Committee during the regular legislative session, dedicates precious little (just 11 percent) of the new money investment for that need.
In Part One of this series, we questioned the value of some of the proposal’s priciest projects, most especially the $3 billion Puget Sound Gateway mega-project. In Part Two, we look at how the House proposal for new transportation funding treats the three mega-projects that are already underway.
Columbia River Crossing
Of transportation projects we’ve already started, and for which a long-term funding plan is especially critical, the most pressing is the Columbia River Crossing. This mega-project would replace the worn out, unsafe, obsolete and critically important I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Washington.
Years of time and tens of millions of dollars have been spent achieving a design that balances community needs on both sides of the river. Now, finally, the Columbia River Crossing is poised to move towards contractor selection and construction. But doing so depends on an intricate ($3 to $3.5 billion) financial framework that requires the participation of Washington and Oregon, the Federal Transit Agency and Federal Highway Administration, and a very valuable federal low-interest loan that’s tied to tolling the crossing.
Washington’s $450 million share, which would come from new gas tax revenues, was part of the original House Transportation Committee proposal that stalled in the regular session. It has also been vigorously endorsed by Governor Inslee. But these funds have run headlong into the diversionary tactics of Clark County Senator Don Benton.
A leader in the Senate’s ruling majority coalition, Benton has been seeking to derail the Columbia River Crossing project. Literally. He insists that Portland’s light rail system not be connected over the new bridge to Clark County despite the face that his position threatens the consensus painstakingly arrived at by just about everyone else. A 12-year transportation program that doesn’t include a clear commitment to the Columbia River Crossing raises the question of whether any program without it is worth the political lift.
Two other ongoing mega-projects have also been left out of the House proposal. The absence of the SR 520 Bridge and SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct replacements raises doubts about whether state legislators and the governor are really serious about their “finish what we’ve started” focus.
SR 520 Bridge Replacement
The 520 Bridge Replacement pushes ahead with construction on the east side of Lake Washington and with pontoons across Lake Washington to Montlake. Yet the project still awaits the requisite legislative endorsement for how the construction now under way will be completed westward through Montlake, across Portage Bay and over Capitol Hill to connect with I-5. That topic is untouched in the proposed transportation bill, as is the question of how to pay its unfunded cost (assumed to be about $1.4 billion).
The proposed 12-year revenue package pending in Olympia tosses $100 million into the maw. Lawmakers seem to be operating on the blithe assumption that fully $1.3 billion of the cost can be raised by selling construction bonds to be paid for by decades of tolling on the I-90 Lake Washington crossing. Funny since the new package doesn’t attempt to accelerate approval of the tolling plan on which that critical assumption hinges. That’s unsettling given the unpopularity of tolling, and the legislature’s appropriation in the regular session of $5 million for yet another impact statement on I-90 tolls, including ways to partially immunize Mercer Island residents. Also worrisome is the fact that the proposed 12-year funding plan offers no real contingency should the I-90 tolling plan generate too much controversy and not enough money to cover the projected cost.
SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement
The same issues apply to the Viaduct replacement, albeit on less dramatic scale. The new tunnel boring machine has arrived to start serious construction. Four years ago, state legislators declared that tolls should help cover roughly $400 million of the tunnel's cost.
Critics pounced. A tunnel toll promised big shifts of traffic onto already crowded city streets. By redeploying some federal money lawmakers belatedly cut the tunnel cost in half (to $200 million), but the current transportation package makes no attempt to correct the basic, flawed assumption that traffic-diverting tolls are a viable strategy.
Besides these mega concerns, other skeptical mutterings raise questions about whether the package is designed to get the most out of short transportation dollars. Here are a few:
- Almost $4 billion designated for highway construction projects, mostly expansions, is distributed among a smorgasbord of two dozen projects. Some are very high priority. But there is no sign of the right-sizing judgments the legislature, just this year, asked the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to refine. Sprinkling scarce dollars around so there is something for everybody – “peanut buttering” in Olympia transportation parlance – is a legislative bad habit that only reinforces public misgivings about the state’s ability to ever really finish anything.
- Cities and counties across the state, desperate for help with road and bridge deficiencies, are wondering why their collective direct share of the 12-year spending pie is only $343 million, just one penny of that 10-cent gas tax hike everyone will be paying.
- By contrast, the ferry system, which serves only a handful of communities, stands to get $435 million to cover never-conquered operating deficits; $161 million for Colman Dock and Mukilteo terminal improvements; and $84 million more for debt service to bond construction of another big vessel. In total, that’s more than twice as much as the state’s cities and counties. Yet, the proposed package delays the inevitable day when lawmakers will be forced to finally address the ferry system’s chronic fiscal unsustainability.
- Transit advocates wanted a small increase in annual license tab fees to help stave off crippling transit service cuts. Legislators basically punted, proposing instead that a few agencies could ask their local voters for license tab increases. (With legislative leaders and a governor all pledged to support transit, the least they could do is bestow some local revenue authority without forcing linkage to a statewide highway-centered bill.) Lawmakers also turned a deaf ear to calls for greater accountability, efficiency and coordination among the five (Count them: Five!) separate transit agencies in the central Puget Sound metropolitan area.
- Meanwhile, the House proposal calls for a $100 million taxpayer investment to protect Warren Buffet’s BNSF mainline against pesky winter mudslides. Sounder North and state-supported Amtrak trains interrupted on that line are already heavily subsidized boutique transportation operations that serve tiny numbers of patrons.
There is little to recommend in the proposed transportation revenue package. But there are definitely ways to improve it and create a stronger foundation for our transportation future. I’ll explain how in the next installment of the series.
Next: The Elephant in the Room: Does I-5 Have a Future?