If the gavel falls on the Washington Legislature’s session a week from Sunday without a comprehensive transportation package, lawmakers will have failed the state’s residents, economy and climate efforts.
Only 72% of Washington highways were in acceptable condition as of 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The Legislature should enact a sound plan that would invest $17.8 billion over 16 years to boost Washington’s mobility while also making robust progress toward significant reductions in carbon emissions. That former goal is crucial to our economy, the latter, crucial to our environment. Construction jobs promised with this package would help drive economic resurgence across the state.
A diverse coalition of business, union, environment and government interests have urged lawmakers to get a transportation deal done, now: from Amazon, Microsoft and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to Climate Solutions and the Washington State Labor Council. This package would make crucial infrastructure improvements while leveraging a cap-and-trade mechanism to cut the state’s greenhouse gas pollution, an achievement that has long eluded Gov. Jay Inslee.
The state is in a unique moment of opportunity that the Legislature would be foolish to squander. The state’s borrowing rates to pay for infrastructure are low, and those investments pay off by building long-term economic growth. A carbon cap-and-trade mechanism to provide hundreds of millions of dollars for needed infrastructure, the core of the so-called “grand bargain,” has cleared the state Senate already.
Time is tight. Under the state constitution, the Legislature’s session ends April 25. Either by then or in a special session, lawmakers should urgently make deals to get a farsighted plan for mending roads and bridges, bolstering transit and ferries, and repairing environmental damage done by fish-blocking culverts and stormwater runoff into Puget Sound.
Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, debuted his “Forward Washington” proposal in 2019, and lawmakers from both parties have developed it into a comprehensive statewide plan.
The plan includes court-mandated fish passages under state highways, bridge replacements, reductions of stormwater pollution and electrification of ferries and buses. It wisely spends about five times as much on environmental improvement and infrastructure preservation as it does on road construction — which is laser-focused on existing roads. The investment would spread the expense among a gas-tax increase of 9.8 cents a gallon, fee increases, cap-and-trade revenue and new debt.
Careful bipartisan negotiations have ensured concerns and values across regions and party lines are embedded in the proposal. Bridges need repair and replacement from Seattle to the Columbia River. The West Seattle Bridge is shut down, the Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge is rusting, and the I-5 bridge to Oregon is a perennial seismic risk.
“There really isn’t any reason not to do this,” Hobbs said in an interview this week.
The Washington State Department of Transportation oversees 7,000 miles of roads and bridges, along with America’s largest ferry fleet. Due to deferred work, repairs will cost $14.8 billion over the coming decade just to sustain “minimally acceptable condition,” a WSDOT estimate says. Work needs to be done. This is the time to do it.
More than $5 billion of this construction plan relies on revenues from “cap-and-invest,” the carbon pricing bill passed by the Senate and now before the House. The limits on emissions will bring down the state’s carbon pollution while putting money into cleaner transportation — and improves lives in areas suffering from intense industrial and freight emissions.
Despite the partisan squabbles inevitably tied to climate-change legislation, lawmakers of both parties should look at the big picture. This environment-improving compromise can produce significant benefits across the state for businesses and residents.
In the waning days of the Legislature, the House and Senate should pass the cap-and-invest and Forward Washington proposals. The approach justifies the incremental fees that support it and the $3 billion in borrowing, which requires supermajority support of the Legislature. The plan builds infrastructure in virtually every legislative district; constituents will see and feel these improvements. No plan will satisfy everyone. But Forward Washington is a strong foundation for the state to build on.
Lawmakers need to hear that it’s time to get this work done, not to punt for another year. A plan to build a better Washington is in front of legislators. Voters should call the Legislature’s hotline at 1-800-562-6000 to urge lawmakers to act now, instead of ducking such an obvious need.