Washington lawmakers must scrutinize a bevy of Seattle-spawned land-use, head-tax and transportation proposals. They are heavy on emotional arguments and platitudes and light on details about who really benefits.
One of the most insidious proposals would radically alter the way state transportation projects are funded, potentially undermining jobs and the economy. Legislators should reject this scheme, in House Bill 2688 and Senate Bill 6398.
Unbelievably, the bills seek to remove “congestion” and “freight mobility” from the list of criteria used to allocate transportation funding. They would substitute more ambiguous, subjective criteria like “accessibility” and “healthy communities.” Of course, such things are important, but they make this a honey trap for gullible legislators.
Other bill elements are overly prescriptive. Transportation projects are currently evaluated for environmental effects, and energy conservation is prioritized. The bills replace that with requirements that projects reduce emissions and fuel consumption. That sounds nice, but it’s fantasy. In reality, it’s a tactic to prevent funding of new, general-purpose road capacity, even if needed for population, job or traffic growth.
Proponents testified they want this done before the Legislature’s next big transportation package, potentially in 2021. That would give them more influence over how the billions are spent.
These bills also pose a constitutional problem. They give the executive branch power to select projects eligible for funding, through screening by the Washington Department of Transportation. That reduces the legislative branch’s fundamental power to budget state spending.
The bills are the top legislative priority stated by the Transportation Choices Coalition, a Seattle lobbying and advocacy group supported by labor and big corporations that profit from transit spending. Other proponents include Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council.
TCC plays a long game to divert ever more tax dollars from roads and toward its preferred projects. It successfully lobbied for criteria changes at the Puget Sound Regional Council, which divvies up federal transportation dollars.
Since October, TCC and a transit union paid former legislative staffers more than $20,000 to lobby legislators and WSDOT. Disappointingly, WSDOT then testified in support of the bills. Sorry Washingtonians, your highway department no longer wants to prioritize traffic relief and economic growth. Also lobbied were House Transportation Chair Jake Fey and Senate Transportation Committee members Joe Nguyen and Rebecca Saldaña, who all co-sponsored the bills.
If lawmakers care about the environment and disadvantaged residents, they should keep prioritizing congestion and freight mobility.
Vehicles idling in congestion are a major cause of pollution. Seattle area drivers wasted 62.7 million gallons of fuel in 2017, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Excess fuel consumption and time lost in Seattle congestion cost drivers $3.4 billion that year, an average of $1,541 apiece.
The poor and working-class suffer most, because they drive more and can least afford congestion costs. About 80% of single-occupant vehicle trips are made by households earning less than $125,000, according to federal statistics. The most frequent drivers are in households earning $50,000 to $75,000.
De-prioritizing freight mobility throttles economic activity, adding costs and delays for small and large businesses. If congestion is allowed to fester, the Port of Seattle, a core of a state with 40% of jobs related to trade, would lose its advantage over other West Coast ports. It hurts workers and those seeking to improve their situation. Higher freight costs limit wage and job growth, reducing opportunity and increasing the cost of food and goods.
Investing in transit and other travel modes is important. But it’s already happening. In the four-county Puget Sound region, transit is forecast to get the lion’s share of transportation dollars — $96.6 billion from 2018 through 2040, versus $24.3 billion for state highways, according to PSRC projections. Even if more goes to transit, 67 to 75% of trips will still be in cars in 2050, and less than 10% by transit, it projects.
Yet TCC is telling legislators, in a handout, different funding approaches are needed because “we’re prioritizing spending on new roads.” It talks of fairness and transparency, even as it seeks to tilt the playing field, remove objective criteria and increase its power to steer more dollars toward benefactors.
To protect the environment, the people of Washington and its constitution, reject HB 2688 and SB 6398.