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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: With gas tax revenue shrinking and infrastructure in growing disrepair, can state find more transportation money?

It’s not the busiest bridge in Washington.

In fact, the Central Ferry Bridge may well be the quietest, as it carries vehicles traveling state Highway 127, which has been deemed Washington’s least-traveled road longer than 10 miles.

Traffic counts, though, aren’t the only way to measure the importance of a piece of transportation infrastructure, said Republican state Sen. Mark Schoesler.

He represents a vast rural area spanning all or part of six counties in the southeastern part of the state, and Schoesler said the Central Ferry Bridge provides a key link for his rural constituents, spanning the Snake River to connect Whitman and Garfield counties.

But the bridge has fallen into disrepair, with rebar sticking out of the roadway, Schoesler said.

While the Washington state Department of Transportation has fixed problems with the bridge as recently as 2019 and “will continue to patch the worse sections as needed, patching isn’t a permanent fix and (the bridge) will most likely continue to deteriorate and become less effective as we move into the winter months,” according to Meagan Lott, WSDOT’s South Central Region communications manager.

The Central Ferry Bridge is far from the only segment of the state road system badly in need of repairs that aren’t coming any time soon.

The state transportation department compiled a list in September of 167 bridges in “poor” condition, meaning they have “advanced deficiencies such as section loss, deterioration, cracking, spalling, scour, or seriously affected primary structural components,” according to the department’s website.

Only about a third of the bridges – 59 total – have funding to be fixed.

Lott said the situation is even worse, with “591 bridge decks statewide in need of repairs, overlays or deck replacement over the next 10 years at a cost of nearly $1.2 billion. However, we only have funding to address 43 bridges through 2024, which includes the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge and the I-90 Vantage Bridge.” That longer list, she said, was identified “for budgeting purposes.”

Of those hundreds of bridges, the Central Ferry Bridge ranks 121 on the priority list for repairs.

“We just don’t have the funding right now for a permanent fix, which would be to replace the entire bridge deck,” Lott wrote.

So instead, she said, the transportation department dropped the bridge’s speed limit from 50 mph to 30 mph in an effort to “minimize more damage.”

That’s one approach WSDOT has taken statewide, in addition to instituting truck weight restrictions and even closing bridges altogether.

And WSDOT officials, including Eastern Region Administrator Mike Gribner, have been vocal about a future filled with such reductions in service if funding for preservation and maintenance isn’t boosted.

Gribner has called the situation a “crisis.”

“We do not have the money to fix the things that are broken,” he told The Spokesman-Review last year.

“We will be making trade-off decisions about what gets fixed that gets broken. That’s where we are. And what doesn’t get fixed that’s broken is going to have consequences to the public.”

While Schoesler doesn’t entirely discount the need to boost funding for repairs, he’s harshly critical of WSDOT’s approach.

“We do need more money for maintenance,” he said. “But we need a change of attitude before we give them any more.”

The department’s attitude, he said, is “always about excuses. It’s never about efficiencies.”

“The answer at WSDOT is always more money,” Schoeseler added. “And they also believe in inflicting a little pain to draw the public’s attention.”

He accused the department of “playing politics” when it decides where to allocate its limited resources and argues a calculus for deciding what to repair that’s based on traffic counts is one that disproportionately harms rural and conservative parts of the state.

“They didn’t care if rural Washington ruined their tires or their front ends,” Schoesler said of the failure to fund fixes for the Central Ferry Bridge.

“They didn’t care what happened to people who had to go from Garfield County on one side to Whitman County. … Rural Washington is just an inconvenience for them.”

But urban parts of the state have also suffered.

Spokane’s Rosamand Avenue bridge, for example, spans Interstate 90.

It connected the West Hills and Grandview/Thorpe neighborhoods from 1962 until April, when WSDOT shuttered it for the foreseeable future due to its deterioration.

Ryan Overton, a spokesman for WSDOT’s Eastern Region, recently told The Spokesman-Review repairs for the Rosamond Bridge have been delayed while the department spends its limited funds on other projects, like the busier Mullan Road I-90 overpass in Spokane Valley.

Meanwhile, the department has been pushing legislators to give the department more money.

“The current preservation backlog is approximately $690 million per year and is only expected to grow as funding fails to keep up with needs,” according to the department’s Capital Improvement and Preservation Program budget request from September 2020. “The backlog affects every mode of our statewide transportation system; travelers and shippers are already feeling the effects. This budget request includes a $10 billion State of Good Repair package to fund the minimum investment necessary to preserve agency managed assets at their lowest life cycle cost.”

Instead, said Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli of Spokane, the budget enacted for the 2021-2023 biennium acted as a “Band-Aid.”

“It keeps the lights on but doesn’t make any progress on these needs,” Riccelli said.

But he is hoping substantial progress will come soon.

Riccelli said state transportation officials “aren’t partisan political people” and that they recently put forth an “objective analysis” that lays out $7.6 billion in needs statewide.

To meet that need, while also promoting carbon reduction and boosting progress on “mega projects” like the North Spokane Corridor, Riccelli has joined with some of his House colleagues to promote a massive package that was initially designed to raise $25.8 billion, largely by raising the state’s already high gas tax and tying it to inflation.

That proposal has hit some speed bumps but is still being negotiated, albeit in a slimmer form, according to Riccelli.

“It would be significant investment,” Riccelli said, “but it’s likely that number comes down a bit.”

While the gas tax has been eyed as a potential source of revenue, that pot of money has been an increasingly unreliable means for filling WSDOT’s tank.

Last month, the state Office of Financial Management released its latest Transportation Revenue Forecasts.

It found that revenue for the transportation department in 2020 was off 8.3%, or $263 million, from the amount forecasted before the COVID-19 pandemic started.

And the report predicts the losses will continue to mount. This year, the revenue forecast is expected to be down 5.8%, or $190 million. Next year, the Office of Financial Management expects it will be down 8.7%, or $288 million. In 2023, it will be down 5.9% from projections, or $203 million.

The biggest hit to revenue will come from declines in the fuel tax.

This year, revenue from that source alone will be off by $220 million, according to the OFM report.

And with electric vehicles increasingly popular, the gas tax looks decreasingly reliable as a funding source.

Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, said the shortfalls aren’t just about the future. They could also become a problem for the last major transportation package funded by the Legislature, he said.

The Connecting Washington Package, which passed in 2015, raised the gas tax by 11.9 cents to raise $16 billion, including $1.4 billion for state highway maintenance, operations and preservation and $9.4 billion for highways and roads.

Among the projects it funded was completion of the North Spokane Corridor.

So far, Billig said WSDOT “has been proficient in finding efficiencies” to keep work on track and that “the money appropriated should be enough to complete” the corridor.

But he also said lawmakers might have to allocate more money “to make sure that all of the projects from the 2015 transportation package, including the North Spokane Corridor, are completed on time.”

“We do need to figure out how to cover the shortfall in gas tax revenues to figure out how all of the projects funded in the 2015 package can be completed on the timelines that were originally designed,” he said.

As for Schoesler, he offers a more brusque assessment: “We funded Connecting Washington. It’s the DOT’s job to get it implemented.”

But Billig, like Riccelli, believes a new transportation package is key to keeping those projects moving forward, and could even speed them up, while also dealing with a whole host of other issues, including boosting the maintenance and preservation transportation budget and combating climate change with new bike, pedestrian and transit projects like a bus-rapid-transit line on Division Street.

To do all that, legislators might well have to look at other sources of funding to pay for transportation needs.

Schoesler said the state should direct vehicle sales tax money to road maintenance so that all drivers, including electric-vehicle owners who evade the gas tax, “pay their fair share.”

Billig and Riccelli, meanwhile, floated the idea of a tax based on vehicle miles travelled or road usage, which the state transportation commission has begun studying.

But as they seek to arrive at a solution for WSDOT’s funding woes, Riccelli said he hopes everyone will be at the table.

“I think it would be hugely impactful to have a bipartisan group of legislators … negotiating the things communities need,” Riccelli said. “I would welcome Sen. Schoesler to that conversation.”

Schoesler, though, doesn’t plan to join in.

“I don’t think you can make that (transportation) bill better,” he said. “That bill is giving you a choice between hanging and lethal injection.”

In either case, he said, it comes down to “which taxes will you accept. They’re not proposing a single reform to save the taxpayers money. Not one.”

He also argues the package will benefit the West Side disproportionately and offer “nothing in the Inland Empire.”

If lawmakers want to give a jolt of funding to transportation, Schoesler suggested, they should look to tap into the state’s projected $3 billion budget surplus.

“When we’ve got a phenomenal surplus coming,” he said, “we certainly could dedicate some of it to transportation.”