Point of View: Washington state transportation system at a critical crossroad


Rep. Keith Goehner

If you traveled around Washington State this summer, you likely experienced some of the extensive road construction that was happening. While it was great to see the much-needed work on our roads, our transportation system is quickly approaching a critical crossroad. 

Washington state is not keeping up with road maintenance and preservation, bridges and railways are outdated and need to be replaced, state ferries are operating at reduced levels of service, and construction projects have been delayed and are exceeding expected costs.

Inflation is driving up contract prices, labor shortages continue, there are fewer bids for construction projects, and there is a decrease in revenue coming from fuel taxes with more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles using our roadways.

This year’s study by the Reason Foundation ranked Washington state 46th in the nation in overall highway performance and cost-effectiveness. The state ranks last, meaning the most expensive, in costs to build new and widen existing highways and bridges, as well as last in costs to perform routine upkeep such as repaving.  It ranked in the bottom ten nationally in six of the report’s 13 metrics.

We are facing many difficult issues as our transportation funding model is languishing.

In fact, according to a recent article, a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) official told the Washington State Transportation Commission at its Oct. 17 meeting that the department has amassed an $11 billion gap over the past decade between the revenue they’re receiving and the amount they need to preserve and maintain the infrastructure. He said WSDOT would need an additional $1.1 billion each year “to meet all the agency maintenance and preservation needs.”

During the 2023 legislative session, it took a strong, bipartisan effort to reverse the governor’s proposal to eliminate or delay transportation projects already underway.

There are no easy answers, but we need to examine our transportation priorities. 

Recently, a contract was awarded to start electrifying the state ferry system. The cost to retrofit three vessels amounts to $150 million, which is part of an approximate $4 billion plan to electrify or build new ferries and add charging power to 16 terminals. Is this the best bang for our buck as we fall behind on crucial projects and our roads deteriorate? 

The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) is bringing in a massive amount of dollars at taxpayers’ expense. However, there is limited transportation benefit because the dollars generated by the CCA are not dedicated to roads and can only be used on aspects of electrification of the ferries, not the complete price of a boat despite the overall cost being hundreds of millions more due to the need for a new design for the hybrid-electric ferries. Wouldn’t it be better to use these dollars to address the $7 billion backlog of crumbling roads, structurally unsound bridges, and a lengthy list of maintenance needs? 

Finally, some Congressional members and legislators in the Puget Sound area have requested $200 million from the federal government just to study a high-speed rail system between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., with a stop in Seattle. 

An independent legislative review in June estimated construction costs of potentially $63 billion. Last session, the transportation budget included $50 million for state matching funds for any federal grant for the bullet train project. Have we not learned anything from the failed experiment in California to build a similar project? Many legislators realize this is a massive and unrealistic endeavor with a huge price tag that could take decades to build if it is finished at all! Meanwhile, we cannot pay to maintain the roads and rails we have. 

Instead of throwing money at these wasteful projects, it would be better to prioritize getting the existing system into a state of good repair.

It is time to get away from drivers paying for other modes of transportation infrastructure. Two years ago, I was able to get a provision in the transportation budget that would have taken a more proactive approach to creating a sustainable and resilient transportation spending plan.  Unfortunately, the governor vetoed it. 

With the general fund having billions of dollars in unexpected revenues, Republicans continue to call for revenue from the general fund, such as the state sales tax paid on motor vehicles, to fund the preservation and maintenance of existing infrastructure.

We can take some pressure off the increasing cost of gas driven by the CCA and vehicle license fees by shifting funding for the removal of fish-passage barriers, multimodal programs, and Amtrak from the transportation budget to the operating budget because of their benefits to the environment, public health, and air quality. Keep in mind the Legislature is spending a record amount of money, including the funding of new programs. The focus should be on much-needed transportation infrastructure projects – not new programs.

We must explore new options. A strong, high-quality transportation system is essential to our economy, public safety, and quality of life.

Rep. Keith Goehner serves on the House Transportation Committee, is the ranking Republican on the House Local Government Committee, and serves on the Environment and Energy Committee

 

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