Transportation spending: are we making the right choices?

Having failed to pass transportation funding in the regular session, the state Legislature is currently in special session. Governor Inslee has called the transportation funding package a priority for the special session.

But what exactly is going to be funded? As I mentioned in my post a couple weeks ago, highway mega-projects are in line to receive the lion’s share of all transportation funding. This situation is not unusual, as transportation funding has for many decades been focused primarily on building and expanding highways. But is it time we took another look at what our transportation funding priorities should be?

A new report from US PIRG makes clear that our decades-long increase in the expansion of driving is over:

Figure ES-2. Aggregate Vehicle-Miles Traveled in the United States under Several Scenarios of Future Travel Growth, 1946-2040

Figure ES-2. Aggregate Vehicle-Miles Traveled in the United States under Several Scenarios of Future Travel Growth, 1946-2040

Source: A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future

The Atlantic Wire reports on this trend, and asks the questions:

“Thus far in the transportation community, the question of declining vehicle miles traveled and declining gas tax revenues has been thought of as a revenue problem. There’s not enough money coming in to deal with the needs that we think we have… What is it we think we’re actually going to need for the future?

“What if we don’t need to find funding to for quite so many highway expansions?”

Douglas B. MacDonald has written an excellent four-part series on Crosscut, asking that question too. The first two parts of the series contain good background and analysis of the current state of mega-project funding. (Part Three discusses maintenance needs for I-5 and part Four discusses tolling.)

From Part One:

“It’s been eight years since state lawmakers enacted the last significant transportation revenue package (in 2005). If a new package passes, it will likely be years before the issue ripens again. In other words, this might be our last chance in a long while to get important things done right. So let’s take a close look at what’s on the table…

“The greatest puzzle in the current proposal is that it does little, if anything, to pick up the pace of fixing the state’s deteriorating pavements, bridges and other existing transportation facilities. The package’s promotion advertises top priority to the crisis of maintenance and preservation of existing infrastructure — and everyone has taken that pledge of allegiance. Yet, the package authors dedicate only 11 percent of the total new money infusion to the “Fix It First” objective.

“That’s financial miles short of the widely held consensus about the need. In fact, it’s a prescription for further, unavoidable and accelerating decay of the current transportation system, effectively guaranteeing more crumbling roads and huge future costs for eventually setting things right…

“But the real surprise in the package is how much of the new money would be spent on a bunch of new projects, and how a single new project dominates the list…

“Both the House package and Governor Inslee propose elevating, right to the top of the new 12-year funding list, a $3 billion whopper mega-project. It’s called the Puget Sound Gateway Project. (Not to be confused with the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal project, which is being considered for Bellingham.)

“This big new Puget Sound Gateway Project is a case study of how myth can displace analysis and join with the muscle of old-fashioned highway lobby politics to throw big money at investments that are not the best use of scarce dollars.”

From Part Two:

“Two other ongoing mega-projects have also been left out of the House proposal. The absence of the SR 520 Bridge and SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct replacements raises doubts about whether state legislators and the governor are really serious about their ‘finish what we’ve started’ focus… the project still awaits the requisite legislative endorsement for how the construction now under way will be completed westward… That topic is untouched in the proposed transportation bill, as is the question of how to pay its unfunded cost (assumed to be about $1.4 billion).

“The same issues apply to the Viaduct replacement, albeit on less dramatic scale. The new tunnel boring machine has arrived to start serious construction. Four years ago, state legislators declared that tolls should help cover roughly $400 million of the tunnel’s cost.

“Critics pounced. A tunnel toll promised big shifts of traffic onto already crowded city streets. By redeploying some federal money lawmakers belatedly cut the tunnel cost in half (to $200 million), but the current transportation package makes no attempt to correct the basic, flawed assumption that traffic-diverting tolls are a viable strategy…

“Besides these mega concerns, other skeptical mutterings raise questions about whether the package is designed to get the most out of short transportation dollars. Here are a few:

  • Almost $4 billion designated for highway construction projects, mostly expansions, is distributed among a smorgasbord of two dozen projects. Some are very high priority. But there is no sign of the right-sizing judgments the legislature, just this year, asked the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to refine. Sprinkling scarce dollars around so there is something for everybody – “peanut buttering” in Olympia transportation parlance – is a legislative bad habit that only reinforces public misgivings about the state’s ability to ever really finish anything.
  • Cities and counties across the state, desperate for help with road and bridge deficiencies, are wondering why their collective direct share of the 12-year spending pie is only $343 million, just one penny of that 10-cent gas tax hike everyone will be paying.
  • By contrast, the ferry system, which serves only a handful of communities, stands to get $435 million to cover never-conquered operating deficits; $161 million for Colman Dock and Mukilteo terminal improvements; and $84 million more for debt service to bond construction of another big  vessel. In total, that’s more than twice as much as the state’s cities and counties. Yet, the proposed package delays the inevitable day when lawmakers will be forced to finally address the ferry system’s chronic fiscal unsustainability.”

While residents of ferry-served communities might not appreciate the slight, it’s important to understand how the rest of the state often feels about the high cost of running the ferry system. As long as so much of the pie is gobbled up in monumental highway projects, advocates for ferry communities, transit, preservation of existing infrastructure, and non-automobile transportation development will always be left fighting over scraps.

The momentum to approve the current crop of highway mega-projects is probably unstoppable, and we’ll be stuck paying for them for many, many years — but at the same time, we can also think about what our true transportation priorities should be in the years ahead.

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