Money for new road construction may run out soon, leaving the state able to afford only basic maintenance, transportation officials say.
“The problems are pretty dramatic,” said Sid Morrison, secretary of the state Department of Transportation.
Even with state lawmakers vowing to cut government spending, the two general fund budget proposals actually increase spending by $800 million to $1.4 billion over the next two years.
By contrast, the separate transportation budget is expected to shrink by $300 million, due to the flat gas tax rate and a cut in federal money that is available.
That could scuttle dreams of building an Interstate 90 interchange at Sprague Avenue, or rerouting Trent Avenue so it doesn’t run through Spokane’s developing Riverpoint higher education park.
And forget about the long discussed northsouth freeway.
The story is the same across the state.
In the Puget Sound region, where bumperto-bumper freeway traffic creeps along during rush hour, there will be no money for extra car-pool lanes between Lynnwood and Tacoma.
There may not even be money to earthquake-proof Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct, a double-deck section of freeway hauntingly similar to the one that collapsed during an earthquake in 1989 in Oakland, Calif.
“Everywhere you look there is need, but there’s just not money to take care of it,” said Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
“We just don’t have enough money to keep up with projects around the state,” Prince said.
“That’s why we need a gas tax increase once in a while.”
The gas tax has remained at 23 cents a gallon since 1991, when it was raised by a penny. The year before that, lawmakers raised the tax 4 cents.
Eleven cents of the tax pays for state highways. Another 11 cents goes to cities and counties for local roads, and 1 cent is devoted to state ferries.
Unlike sales or property taxes, which generate more money as the value of the item being taxed increases - the gas tax is flat, staying the same per gallon regardless of fuel prices.
That means inflation and fuelefficient cars have pretty much consumed the tax hike, leaving the state with about as much buying power as it had before 1990.
If the tax isn’t raised, the state will fall further behind on its list of needed highway and roads projects, Morrison said.
“We’ve got to get that message out there, or we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” Morrison said.
In Spokane, residents probably won’t notice the difference at first, said Jerry Lenzi, regional administrator for the Department of Transportation.
Lenzi said area roads already are having trouble handling traffic from housing and commercial developments.
“We’re not able to hold even, we’re losing ground,” he said.
Some complain that Spokane residents always pay more in gas tax than the state ever gives back in local roads projects.
Over the past 10 years, according to the state Transportation Department, residents of Spokane County paid 24 percent more in gas tax than the state spent on local roads.
“The general belief statewide is that we don’t have any traffic problems over here, and in a comparative way we don’t,” said Dale Stedman, who recently retired as president of Automobile Association of America for Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
But the state shouldn’t wait until traffic congestion becomes a big problem, said Stedman, now secretary of the area Good Roads Association.
“We don’t want to be like Seattle, and we don’t want to be like Los Angeles,” he said.
But in today’s political climate, tax increases are about as popular as root canals.
Just ask House Transportation Committee chairwoman Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island.
Earlier this session she proposed a gas tax hike of 4 cents - subject to voter approval. The other Republican members of her committee supported the increase, which would have paid for highway projects around the state.
But Schmidt couldn’t get enough votes within her own party to bring the measure to a vote of the full House. And Democrats had a field day, pointing out that the average person would have to pay higher gas taxes while the House gave away millions in tax breaks to big businesses.
“As it turns out, that hit a lot of political shoals,” Schmidt admits. “It became a highly partisan issue.”
Schmidt said lawmakers should leave politics behind when it comes to paying for state highways.
“I’ve never gone over a Republican bridge, or a Democratic one,” she said.