With transportation funding, it’s pay now or pay later. It’s really that simple.
Unfortunately, the Legislature has thus far endorsed the pay later approach, which will end up being a lot more expensive. Lawmakers passed an $8.7 billion transportation budget. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it Monday, but not before vetoing controversial funding related to the Columbia River Crossing near Vancouver. The previous biennium’s budget was $9.8 billion.
This would be acceptable if the transportation system didn’t have critical needs, but it does. Several projects are essential to the state’s future economic vitality, including the North Spokane Corridor. This budget earmarks $68 million for that project, down from $72 million in the previous biennium.
Other key projects include the State Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, new lanes for Interstate 405, improvements on I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass and reconstruction of Interstate 5 in the central Puget Sound area. Plus, there’s the massive tunnel project that would replace the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle.
All these projects are crucial to moving goods and people, and lawmakers know this. But many, especially in the Senate, are reluctant to seek new revenue. The state definitely needs additional revenue streams for transportation, and the longer the Legislature waits, the more expensive the projects will get. And the economic benefits of an improved transportation system will be delayed.
The 2010 Washington Transportation Commission Report outlines the challenge. The revenue from the gas tax increases in 2003 and 2005 is tied to current projects for next 25 to 30 years. For future needs, the state must come up with another $175 billion to $200 billion during the next two decades. Lawmakers also know that as vehicles become more fuel efficient, there is a diminishing return from the gas taxes.
The Washington Roundtable has identified several alternatives as part of a suggested transportation package that would begin in 2014. The House Transportation Committee has kicked around similar ideas. They include:
• A value-based vehicle license fee. The Roundtable recommends establishing a 0.6 percent rate.
• An increase in the gross weight vehicle fee.
• A gas tax increase. The Roundtable suggests 5 percent in 2014 and 4 percent in 2015.
• Leveraging the gas tax increase for limited bonding for critical projects.
Under the Roundtable plan, the big projects would get about $3.4 billion during 10 years. For instance, the North Spokane Corridor would receive $365 million, enough to extend the route another three miles to the Spokane River, with money left over for design and right-of-way purchases for the remainder of the project. In addition, another $3.1 billion would be earmarked for maintenance and safety projects, and ferry system upgrades.
Inslee has said he wants a transportation funding package to emerge from the special session. To get enough votes, it will probably have to be scaled back from the ambitions of business leaders. But even a smaller package would build momentum for the next go-around.