The Washington State Department of Transportation, under the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, has released a list of transportation projects that would be deferred due to the recent passage of Initiative 976, which reduces or eliminates car tabs. Surprisingly, the long-awaited North Spokane Corridor (NSC) project, also called the North-South Freeway, which has been promised to voters for decades and was fully funded in the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package, was on that list. Though it may be easy and convenient to pin the blame on the car tab-cutting initiative, the deferral list is ultimately a product of political choice. State DOT Secretary Roger Millar, under the direction of the Governor, states in a November 26th letter that the purpose of delaying projects that are not yet underway is to provide “the Governor and Legislature more funding flexibility” as they tackle the transportation budget during the upcoming 2020 legislative session. This includes projects that were funded by the 11.9 cent gas tax increase that passed as a part of Connecting Washington – projects like the North Spokane Corridor construction of new lanes between Sprague Ave. and the Spokane River.
Some have said that the deferral list includes projects like the North-South Freeway because it is funded by Connecting Washington funds, which included other car taxes and fees. While it’s true that the Connecting Washington package included other increases in taxes and fees, WSDOT confirms that the North-South Freeway is funded solely by the gas tax increase.
This is the same gas tax increase Spokane drivers have been paying for the promise that they would get a new, safer freeway.
It’s also the same gas tax increase that Initiative 976 does not impact at all. Therefore, there should be no reason for the state to halt construction and needlessly frustrate area drivers.
According to WSDOT, the real reason the North-South Freeway was chosen to be added to the deferral list has nothing to do with how it is funded. As stated in Secretary Millar’s letter, WSDOT added projects like the North-South Freeway to the deferral list to give the legislature a larger pool of money to draw from to backfill lost revenue to the projects they decide take priority.
In other words, deferring the North-South Freeway would allow lawmakers, if they choose, to tap into the project’s allocated gas tax money and use it to pay for other things, despite what they promised to the public.
It is especially puzzling because Secretary Millar has chosen to exempt certain bike and pedestrian projects, as well as other projects, that he has determined are tied to the “safe operation of our multimodal transportation system.” Yet one of the primary objectives of improvements on US 395, according to WSDOT, is exactly that – to “improve safety by reducing collisions on local arterials.”
Further, bike and pedestrian projects are funded entirely out of the state Multimodal Account, which takes the biggest hit from I-976.
This begs the question – no matter how you feel about I-976 – why should regionally significant gas tax-funded projects be held hostage, while smaller car-tab funded projects are made exempt?
The only conclusion I can draw is that the “deliberative work” that went in to selecting projects for the deferral list is subjective and not rooted in any real-cost benefit analysis.
Moreover, it reflects poorly on WSDOT and further erodes trust in the agency when they use a ballot initiative to defer projects that increase capacity, mobility and safety while saving projects the Secretary and Governor believe are more important. To add insult to injury, lawmakers are now being given flexibility that is completely unmerited to shuffle money around that was entrusted to them for specific purposes.
Political games like this are the reason the North South Freeway is as mythological as Bigfoot in the Spokane area. People don’t believe it will ever be complete – and I can’t blame them. As legislators tackle the transportation budget next session, they can choose to keep the promises they made or they can choose to demonstrate that money is fungible and commitments are meaningless.
Either way, the future of the fully-funded North-South Freeway is not doomed by a car tab initiative. The future of the freeway will be a product of choice made by real people who have the power to determine its level of priority.
Mariya Frost is the transportation director at the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia. WPC’s work can be found at Washingtonpolicy.org
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