WILL 2014 be a summer of traffic jam nightmares? If you were sitting in a car or a bus the day the expansion joint blew out on Interstate 5 near the I-90 interchange, you likely felt that way. Whether it was the congestion through Seattle’s north-south corridor or on the cross-lake bridges, the morning and evening commutes were horrendous.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said the expansion joint blew because the state hasn’t had enough funding to replace joints along that corridor with modern silicone or rubber fillings. It’s a serious maintenance and preservation problem, and the issue is a lot bigger than just that section of highway. In fact, without a new infusion of maintenance and preservation funding, half of state roads would be in poor or very poor condition in fewer than 10 years.
For nearly two years, state lawmakers have been debating a new transportation investment package that would provide much-needed funding for maintenance and preservation of Washington’s existing highway system. Various proposals have come forward and, while everyone involved seems to agree on the need, lawmakers have not been able to close the deal.
Now another issue threatens funding for the state transportation system. The federal Highway Trust Fund is sitting on the precipice of insolvency. Absent action by Congress this summer, the Highway Trust Fund would run out of cash during the height of the summer construction season.
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If that happens, Washington state would no longer be able to rely on the federal government to reimburse costs for highway projects scheduled for construction. Road construction on many state projects could be curtailed if not stopped entirely.
WSDOT has identified 43 highway projects that could be impacted if Congress doesn’t shore up the Highway Trust Fund. The list includes safety and preservation projects in every corner of our state — from paving portions of I-5 to railroad crossings in Eastern Washington. These projects are the nuts and bolts of maintenance and preservation. They keep our roads and bridges from serious decay.
Washington state expects to receive $498 million in federal highway funds in the next fiscal year (that’s 25 percent less than it got in fiscal year 2014). Let’s put that number into context:
The Washington Roundtable has estimated that the state needs $3.4 billion in state maintenance and preservation spending over 12 years to improve road conditions. Any loss of federal funds would add to that need. And state lawmakers have only seriously discussed an increase of approximately $1.2 billion over 12 years, which makes the need for reliable federal funds all the greater.
Washington state needs Congress to act this summer by depositing funds into the Highway Trust Fund to ensure its solvency. Congress also must provide stability for the Highway Trust Fund over the long term.
Washington’s state lawmakers have to do their part too. Legislators should commit to a new state transportation investment package as soon as they reconvene in Olympia. It’s been nearly a decade since Washington state last made a significant investment in transportation, and it needs a renewed commitment to take care of the system and finish projects in key economic corridors.
It’s time to invest — at the federal and state levels — to take care of Washington’s roads and bridges. Let’s put a stop to more nightmare traffic jams caused by poor maintenance. The safety of citizens and the stability of commerce depends on it.
Steve Mullin is president of the Washington Roundtable, a statewide public policy organization of Washington’s major businesses.