Washington voters last week handily passed Initiative 976, which will cut car-tab fees to $30. It was a terrible outcome that will cause transportation problems across the state.
Washingtonians rightly and frequently complain about bad roads, crumbling bridges and congestion. Their gripes are borne out in the numbers. The state’s maintenance backlog is as much as $10 billion by some estimates. The Washington State Department of Transportation classifies less than one-third of the state’s pavement as being in “good condition,” and the state owns 280 bridges that are more than 80 years old.
Bike lanes, sidewalks and buses also need more money to keep some cars off roads, provide transportation options for people who don’t drive and generally make communities more livable.
Yet 55 percent of voters decided to throw away more than $4 billion over the next six years that would have helped pay for all of those transportation needs. They will save a few tens of dollars every year on car tags, and lose it again as potholes take their toll on suspensions and tires.
Now a mad scramble to secure what funds remain will commence. Lawmakers and transportation officials will reprioritize projects and perhaps even introduce new ones in the confusion. The Puget Sound region will try to grab every dollar it can. Vancouver and the freight industry will push hard for money for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River lest a deal with Oregon fall apart again.
Sen. Andy Billig cautioned that localities will lose money, too, including here in Spokane. “On the local level, it is particularly damaging to have this initiative roll back the transportation benefit district funding, which was used for local road work,” he said. “The TBD was approved by voters in our community so it is a confusing message when a state initiative overrides the local will of the voters.”
Our region’s lawmakers – especially those who serve on the transportation committees – must up their game if there’s to be any hope of funding coming to this part of the state.
Divvying up the remaining funds is just the start, though. Transportation funding is now the top priority for the Legislature next year. Leaving such a huge hole in the transportation budget is not feasible if Washington is to move goods and people around the state efficiently.
Lawmakers could gut other state services to help close the funding gap created by I-976, but that’s not likely to happen. They could look to increase other taxes, and car-tag fees might creep back up. In the meantime, the state will make do and postpone projects that should have been completed yesterday.
Before anything else, however, lawmakers must figure out what voters want. What was the message people sent with this vote? Perhaps they are frustrated with the state’s spending priorities and believe that Olympia has more than enough money. Perhaps they are frustrated with taxes and fees spent on feel-good programs and projects that fall outside core state services.
Maybe voters have a fundamental disdain for user fees. After all, roads and transportation infrastructure benefit everyone, not just people who own cars. Or maybe there’s an education gap, and people didn’t fully understand the implications of I-976. Only a quarter of people bothered to vote. If the rest had known the stakes, the result might have been different.
Spokane City Council must look forward
Even though new Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward leans to the right politically, the City Council remains left-leaning. That means Woodward, like her predecessor, will have to spend major effort engaging council members who don’t see eye-to-eye with her.
All members of the council, the council president and mayor owe Spokane residents a collaborative approach to governance. They should engage with outside experts to tackle big challenges and incorporate good ideas regardless of which side of the political spectrum they come from.
On homelessness, the highest-profile issue confronting the community, housing must come first and then accountability, not just one or the other.
On economic development, the city must work effectively with Greater Spokane Incorporated and all entities that strive to attract new employers and generate more jobs at higher incomes.
Council also must embrace the transparency that the public craves as evidenced by the overwhelming support from voters for opening union negotiations to review. Both union workers and city officials now have an opportunity to push for best practices in achieving lower costs while maintaining competitive compensation for public employees.
Success will emerge from respectful conversations that welcome new ideas and diverse viewpoints.
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