Getting There: How do we fix our crumbling roadways?
Sept. 23, 2018 Updated Sun., Sept. 23, 2018 at 10:52 p.m.
What’s worse? Paying to fix Washington state’s crumbling roads? Or paying to fix your car because of Washington’s crumbling roads?
According to Roger Millar, director of the Washington State Department of Transportation, that’s the choice. Using numbers from the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, Millar said the state’s automobiles – and there are 3 million of them registered with the state – suffer from lack of road maintenance.
Every year, Washington’s vehicles get hit with $656 in needless damage due to poor road conditions. That translates, according to a presentation Millar gave earlier this month to the annual meeting of the state’s city and county planning directors, to the equivalent of a $1.14 tax for every gallon of gas we buy. Tax that does nothing to fix our roads, but instead fixes our cars that our roads broke.
In other words, since we’re not ponying up enough to pay for our roads, we instead are paying to fix our cars.
That may confuse some people, especially if they have a memory that stretches back three whole years ago, when the Legislature passed a $16 billion spending package aimed at the state’s transportation network.
The 2015 Connecting Washington program spread money from state coffers all across the state and for all kinds of projects – $1.9 billion for the Puget Sound Gateway project, $879 million to complete the North Spokane Corridor, and $1.3 billion for bikeways, walkways, rail and transit.
That’s lots of good money for lots of new infrastructure, from a 16-year program that is funded primarily by an 11.9-cent gas tax increase. Of that money, however, the maintenance and preservation of existing roadways got the short shrift. The $1.4 billion set aside in the spending package for state highway maintenance, operations and preservation is good, but not nearly enough.
At least, that’s according to the Washington State Good Roads & Transportation Association, which held its 120th annual meeting in Spokane last week. The theme of the conference – the state of good repair today – was underlined with a question: How do we fix our crumbling roadways?
According to the Good Roads group, led by Will Knedlik, a former state legislator from the West Side, the dollars set aside for road maintenance in 2015 – money meant to cover 16 years – wouldn’t even cover one year of preservation or maintenance. The group asserts that every year, statewide road maintenance is underfunded to the tune of between $1.5 and $2 billion. And it has been for a decade or more.
This eye-popping $20 billion in needed maintenance is a bit of a back-of-the-napkin calculation, but Knedlik says the math is sound. WSDOT estimates a backlog of $550 million a year in road maintenance. The Washington State County Road Administration board “spitballs” a need of $560 million a year, Knedlik said. And the state’s Transportation Improvement Board, which distributes money to the state’s 320 cities and towns, echoed the $560 million figure, Knedlik said. Add it up, carry the one and Knedlik sees red.
“It’s a huge number,” said Knedlik. “And we’ve been underspending for at least a decade.”
So how do we fix it?
At the conference, during a discussion between state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, and state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who is expected to chair the House Transportation Committee, it became clear the fix will not be easy.
One solution is to levy a new gas tax to fund another transportation spending package, one focused on fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Such a move would need bipartisan support. But Republicans are loath to raise more taxes and Democrats would rather spend money on “multimodal” transportation like transit and rail.
Another solution would be to make the state’s road usage pilot program a reality, creating a new source of revenue similar to the gas tax. The pilot, which is being conducted statewide by the Washington State Transportation Commission with 2,000 volunteer drivers, has the potential to replace the state’s 49.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax. The idea is, instead of raising funds through a per-gallon tax, motorists would be charged for the miles they drive.
But Fey said the road usage charge couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t be passed without an amendment to the state Constitution protecting the funds it would raise and reserving them for road-related work. Such a protection would mimic the 18th Amendment, which voters passed in 1944. It reserves the use of gas tax funds and vehicle license fees “exclusively for highway purposes.”
“I don’t believe you could pass a road usage charge without it being constitutionally protected, quite frankly,” Fey said. “We’ve always described it as a replacement for the gas tax. Not as an additional tax, but as a replacement that would have the same underlying, fundamental provisions such as constitutional protections.”
To pass a constitutional amendment, two-thirds of the Legislature must agree, again highlighting the need for bipartisan support. Again, seeking bipartisan support puts the solution to fixing our roads a bit out of reach.
But Hobbs, who said he is crafting another transportation spending package that will focus in part on fixing the roads and not just building new ones, said any transportation decisions must be made by both Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m not going to pass a package without Republican votes. I think it’s best when both sides sit together and figure this out because it really benefits the whole state,” he said. “Of course, there are going to be challenges. And this is where those of you who live on the east side of the mountains can convince your Republican legislators to be with me on this transportation package. Those who are tied to business and labor, you’re going to have to help me with the Democrats, because they’re not going to love this either.”
All of which is to say, it’s complicated. But it comes down to dollars and cents, and who pays what. Do motorists want to continue deferring maintenance on the roads at the expense of damage to their cars? Or, can they stomach paying more now to fix the roads and save their undercarriage?
Sunset Highway work
Work on Sunset Highway has switched sides, so while travel on the road west of the city remains restricted to one lane in either direction as the city rebuilds the road, now motorists can drive on new pavement.
When complete, the old road will have two 12-foot-wide travel lanes going uphill, one 14-foot travel lane and bike lane headed down and a 12-foot pedestrian and bicycle path on its northern curb.
The $2.5 million project is giving new life to the road between the intersections of Royal and Lindeke streets with a fresh paved surface. It’s slated for completion this fall.
Sharp work ongoing
Sharp Avenue near Gonzaga University continues to get a major facelift, with the city using new methods to treat stormwater.
The nearly $2 million project has fully closed the road from Pearl to Hamilton streets, as it adds swales and prepares the road for pervious pavement, which will allow stormwater to filter through it into the earth.
In the city
Some minor work that may impact commutes in the city:
- Thirty-first Avenue, between Thor and Freya streets, will be closed through Monday.
- The sidewalk on the east side of Washington, between Spokane Falls Boulevard and Main Avenue, will be closed for repair through Monday.
- The two southern lanes of Third Avenue, between Browne Avenue and Division Street, will be closed through Monday.
- Glass Avenue will be closed between Oak and Belt streets for sewer repair work through Monday.
- The two southern lanes of Sprague Avenue, between Washington and Stevens streets, will be closed until Wednesday.
- Mission Avenue, between Riverton and Marshall avenues, will be reduced to one lane in each direction Thursday and Friday.
- The parking lane, sidewalk and bike lane on Howard’s east side, between First and Sprague avenues, will be closed until Oct. 12.
- Grand Boulevard, between High Drive and 29th Avenue, will be getting some routine crack-seal maintenance.
Grind and overlay
City crews are out doing grind-and-overlay maintenance. On the city’s north side, the following streets will be closed for the work:
- Dalke Avenue from Monroe Street to Wall Street
- Lincoln Street from Central to Francis avenues
- Post Street from Dalke Street to Francis Avenue
- Addison Drive from Standard to Dakota streets
- Dakota Street from Addison Street to Cozza Drive
- Wedgewood Avenue from Standard to Dakota streets
- Mayfair Street from Queen to Rowan avenues
And on the city’s south side, the following streets will be closed:
- Arthur Street from 29th to 38th avenues
- Crescent Avenue from Nora Avenue to Lacey Street
Engineering manual supports bikeways
A draft of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Bike Guide includes design recommendations for protected bike lanes, protected intersections, sidewalk-level bike lanes and bikeways protected from parked vehicles, according to StreetsBlog USA.
It’s the first time the AASHTO guide, an engineering manual used by transportation planners nationwide, includes such design elements.
As StreetsBlog notes, the “failure to include cutting-edge street treatments has given cities an excuse to not implement them — especially in cities with fewer resources or more conservative traffic engineers.”
If you’re wondering where Spokane’s protected bike lanes are, wonder no more. There are none. However, the city is considering putting one on Riverside Avenue between Division and Monroe when it renovates the street in coming years. Will city planners and engineers heed AASHTO’s advice? Time will tell.
Lime bikes, scooters a hit
Lime, a Silicon Valley-based bicycle- and scooter-sharing company, came to town nearly three weeks ago and their vehicles have made quite an impact.
At the two-week mark, a representative from Lime reported that about 15,000 rides have been taken on the 300 bikes and scooters, totaling nearly 1,700 miles.
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