It’s been more than a week since much of the federal government went dark.
For Spokane’s varied transportation network, however, the word shutdown should be in quotes, because from the look of things everything’s just humming along.
Planes are taking off and landing, and people are still herding through security at Spokane International Airport. Spokane Transit Authority buses are running. The Washington State Department of Transportation is still keeping the freeways flowing.
But Sabrina Minshall, executive director of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, said things aren’t always what they seem. Delays behind the scenes might have a ripple effect that won’t be revealed for six months or more. If the shutdown lasts much longer, Minshall said, its impact will be much more obvious.
“Right now, it’s a wait and see,” Minshall said. “There are not any imminent impacts, but that could change.”
SRTC is the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally-mandated and funded transportation policy-making organization made up of local representatives. There are more than 400 such bodies in the country.
It’s a complicated process, but what SRTC does is help prioritize the region’s transportation projects and distribute federal funds for those projects. If there’s no money, there’s no road work. Since we’re outside of construction season, there are no obvious, rubbernecking roadwork delays related to the shutdown in Spokane.
“But right now, projects are in design,” Minshall said, noting that local agencies can only do so much if design work isn’t processed by federal workers. “If design’s delayed, then construction’s delayed.”
A two- or three-week delay in the design process can have repercussions months later, as construction is delayed and contractors deal with the ripple effects of the political decisions made in the nation’s capital.
The situation is made worse since the nation is in something of a crisis with its transportation infrastructure. There’s a “backup of need” to fix the crumbling roadways and deal with increasingly congested traffic, which leads to a lot of federal projects being in the design-build funding pipeline, Minshall said.
Much like a motorist gently tapping his or her brake can cause minutes of congestion, a relatively brief delay in federal funding can have untold consequences.
“It won’t be too long till we feel those impacts,” Minshall said. An extended shutdown could potentially affect projects scheduled for 2019.
Among those projects:
A multimodal study on Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 195
Installation of six ramp meters on I-90 in the city core
Work related to the North Spokane Corridor
A study looking at a trail connection between the Fish Lake to Centennial trails
STA’s Central City Line
The second phase of major renovation on East Sprague Avenue
Street preservation projects on Maple, Ash and Nevada streets, and Wellesley, Sprague and Mission avenues
Major renovation to Geiger Boulevard related to the coming Amazon fulfillment center.
SRTC runs on federal dollars, but Minshall said they have a rainy day fund for emergencies, politician-caused or otherwise. SRTC’s federal dollars are passed through the Washington State Department of Transportation, but its board has built up reserves.
“You don’t have a lot of resources because a lot of what you do is meet federal and state requirements,” Minshall said. “We try to have a three-month operating reserve.”
And even if everything looks to be running smoothly outside of SRTC, some of it is an illusion. In fact, 92 percent of workers with TSA airport security are working without pay.
According to a recent report in Politico, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration shut down just after midnight on Christmas Eve “after using up its operations funds two days after the deadline to reach a spending agreement passed.”
That should’ve caused the nation’s airports to close their doors – a situation that surely would’ve gotten the attention of many holiday-traveling Americans. Instead, air traffic controllers are working without knowing if or when they’ll get paid, and they represent more than two-thirds of the 33,737 Transportation Department employees still at work, according to Politico.
Overall, the federal Department of Transportation furloughed 38 percent of its employees – about 18,300 people. Within the department, the Federal Transit Administration has the highest share of furloughed employees, with 88 percent of its workers not working due to the shutdown.
Despite the near-complete darkening of the FTA, Brandon Rapez-Betty, spokesman for Spokane Transit, said the local agency wasn’t concerned, yet.
“We are not anticipating any impacts from what we assume to be a temporary shutdown. If the shutdown lasts longer than previous ones, we’ll reassess,” he wrote in an email.
In its own analysis, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said that the shutdown is holding up funding increases that were part of the fiscal 2019 transportation appropriations bill. The bill provides $49.3 billion for highway infrastructure.
Ryan Overton, a spokesman with WSDOT’s eastern region office, said his agency wasn’t anticipating any immediate affects, but noted that it works with multiple federal agencies – including the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Rail Administration – and that it is dependent on the U.S. Treasury to reimburse it for projects.
“This means there will be no payments during the shutdown,” Overton wrote in an email. “Grant payments will be delayed from a number of agencies including the FHWA, FTA and FAA. WSDOT will not be reimbursed for weekly and monthly highway project reimbursement requests.”
Perhaps the most immediate sign that business isn’t as usual for federal workers came in an automatic response email from Allen Kenitzer, spokesman for the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region.
“Due to the lapse in government funding, I am off work,” his email read.
Washington is 44th
It’s New Year’s Eve – one of the deadliest nights on American roads.
So aside from the obvious but too often ignored advice to not drink and drive, know this: you don’t even have to drive.
Take a bus.
Take a taxi, or a Lyft.
Better yet, be a hero, stay sober and drive a bunch of your friends and loved ones around.
Now for some bragging: Washington state ranks 44th when it comes to impaired motorists, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data compiled by SafeWise, which researches and reviews home security systems.
That means only a handful of states have motorists that are safer than we are, in this regard, and many more that are worse.
The states with the highest drunk driving deaths are Wyoming, South Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico and Alabama. Wyoming has nearly eight impaired driving-related deaths per 100,000 people.
By comparison, Washington has 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Idaho comes in at 23rd, with 3.5 deaths.
The safest state is New Jersey. Now that’s boss.
Or train in the New Year
Wouldn’t it be something to ride a train to bring in the New Year?
It’s probably not going to happen here, but some Americans make it happen. In 2017, Amtrak saw a 9.3 percent increase in travelers on New Year’s Eve, and a 12.4 percent increase on New Year’s Day.
The national passenger railway expects to see a similar bump this year.
Seattle’s big dollar transportation system
Last week, the Seattle Times published a massive breakdown of transportation spending in Washington’s largest city. Brace yourself.
First of all, total annual spending comes to $4.75 billion, or about $2,170 per person in King County. The biggest share of the pie – at about $686 per person – is devoted to building new transit, part of Seattle’s long term plan to untangle the mess of cars that has paralyzed Emerald City commutes.
The money spent by the 40 various transportation agencies in the metro area is 24 times what Seattle and King County spent on homelessness in 2017. That’ll make your eyes pop, but your head may explode when you hear the total spending equates to about 4 percent of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ worth.
Where does all that money come from? Contrary to popular belief, motorists don’t pay for the roads all by themselves. Not even close. It takes a complicated equation of “sales tax, gas tax, property tax, federal grants, fees on drivers and fares from transit passengers, and with the proceeds of selling bonds backed by all that tax revenue,” the Times reported.
What about the gas tax? At 49.4 cents per gallon, Washington state has the second-highest gas tax in the nation, and for the Seattle-area it generates about $509.6 million a year. That would cover about 38 percent of what it takes just to build and maintain the city’s roads and bridges. Not to mention the additional $213 million needed to simply operate the city’s highways and the $397.8 million needed to pay debt on past borrowing done for the city’s previous transportation projects.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Jan. 2, 2019 to correct the spelling of Brandon Rapez-Betty.
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