Guest Opinion: Transportation spending plan is backward

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An I-5 bridge collapsed into the Skagit River.

If Washington legislators are going to ask taxpayers to spend more money on transportation, they should do so responsibly. But both of the state Legislature’s transportation packages — one passed by the state Senate and one by the House Transportation Committee — are wasteful, misguided, irresponsible and a bad deal for Washington residents.

Consider the problem of bridge maintenance. Less than two years ago the I-5 bridge across the Skagit River collapsed. More recently, the State Route 410 White River bridge was closed for emergency repairs. Yet these mishaps represent just the tip of the iceberg. According to new Federal Highway Administration data released in January, 382 bridges in Washington were structurally deficient at the end of 2014, an increase of 10 over the 2013 statewide total, and an increase of 16 over the 2012 count.

Similarly, many city and county roads across the state are in dire need of repair, but cash-strapped local governments simply don’t have the money to keep them in good shape.

Yet despite these and other pressing maintenance needs, both packages would approve meager funding over the next 16 years for maintenance — and five times more money to new road projects than for fixing the roads and bridges we already have. It makes no sense to splurge on new highways while existing roads and bridges fall into disrepair. It’s like building an addition on your home when the roof is leaking and the foundation is cracked. Besides, numerous studies have found that repair and maintenance creates more jobs than new construction.

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Puget Sound Gateway Project Map Credit: WSDOT

To make matters worse, many of the projects in the package are ill-conceived and out of touch with today’s transportation needs. Take the Puget Sound Gateway project. As former Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald argued in a May 2013 Crosscut article, real estate developers in unincorporated Pierce would reap the lion’s share of the benefits from the project, which will foster sprawl by connecting the I-5 corridor with the urban fringe of King and Pierce counties — a result that MacDonald suggested would be “wholly antithetical to the Puget Sound region’s transportation [and] land use sustainability.” Yet both packages would devote more money to this one project than to the entire highway-preservation budget.

Not only does the Legislature’s highway spending binge shortchange maintenance, it could shackle Washington to an unsustainable debt load. Today, more than half of the state's revenue from fuel taxes is siphoned off to pay for debts from the last round of highway projects authorized a decade ago. That figure is expected to increase to more than 70 percent within the next five years.

Both packages just add to the state’s highway debt. With so much money devoted to pay off the debts from past highways, there’s precious little left for other pressing transportation needs.

In a sobering letter earlier this year, Washington state treasurer James McIntire warned the legislature about the risks of debt-fueled highway expansions, saying that aggressive issuance of highway construction bonds backed by fuel taxes “will limit funds for maintenance and operation costs and can affect the state’s ability to share [fuel tax] revenue with local governments. Ultimately, staying on this path can stress the general fund and negatively affect Washington’s strong credit rating — which could in turn significantly increase borrowing costs for the state across the board.”

What Washington needs, now more than ever, is a responsible transportation package: one that focuses on repairing and maintaining our roads and bridges, and gets our fiscal house in order by reducing debt service, and promotes smart growth with multi-modal investments that will enable the state to grow and prosper in the 21st century.

State leaders shouldn’t settle for a bad deal that raises taxes for waste and neglects our most pressing priorities. State leaders need to start over and do it right.


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