The amount of money being invested in Washington state’s transportation infrastructure is approaching its peak, but every roller-coaster rider knows what that means:
A precipitous drop lies ahead, as practically every dollar of revenue from the 14.5 cents per gallon in gasoline tax hikes approved in 2003 and 2005 will be needed for years to come to pay off the bonds that funded hundreds of highway projects around the state. In the meantime, gasoline use is declining, thanks largely to the efficiency of today’s motor vehicles. Hence, gasoline taxes, though still a critical source of revenues for building and maintaining roads and highways, will become less and less adequate in the future.
It should be no surprise, then, that the state Department of Transportation forecasts an accompanying decline in the condition of existing roads as maintenance funds dry up. Although more than 90 percent of current lane miles in the state are considered in good or fair condition, that figure is expected to drop below 70 percent by 2023.
Keep in mind, this is about the upkeep of routes already in place. New capacity, such as the North Spokane Corridor, the 520 bridge across Lake Washington or the Columbia River crossing between Vancouver and Portland – all of which will add to the maintenance demands on top of the billions they will cost to construct – is another competitor for increasingly scarce transportation funding.
State transportation officials can take satisfaction in a study this year by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation, listing Washington as one of only 13 states that rely on goals and performance measures to help them prioritize transportation spending. The state received a “leading the way” rating from the study’s authors.
Still, the public has shown little appetite for tax hikes, no matter what the purpose.
The Washington Policy Center recently commissioned a poll that showed 52 percent of voters in Washington object to a transportation tax hike, even to ease congestion. Previous polls in 2007 and 2009 reflected public support for such a tax.
However, the state can’t just turn its back on the need for an efficient means of moving people and goods about the state. Creative, updated revenue strategies will be necessary. More tolling is a certainty. In-lieu fees on gasoline-free electric cars are likely as well. Transportation benefit districts, development fees and sometime down the road a vehicle-miles-travelled fee could all be in the mix. In the near future, a gasoline tax hike is a predictable proposal.
No matter how critical the transportation needs in Washington, obtaining funding will be an uphill battle in the current political climate. To win it, the state will have to rely heavily on the accountability measures that the Pew report found commendable.