Difficult times such as these can present extraordinary opportunities. With vision and creativity, Washington lawmakers can tackle the state’s daunting transportation infrastructure and make headway on reducing carbon emissions. And they could help drive the state’s economic recovery.
The case is strong just for infrastructure investment. Though the state hiked gas taxes to pay for the “Connecting Washington” transportation package six years ago, many problems were not addressed. High on the list are the salmon-blocking culverts beneath roads, which the state is under federal court order to fix by 2030. The Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River and the U.S. 2 trestle in Snohomish County should be replaced. And the state Department of Transportation reports a need for $8 billion for systemwide maintenance, including ferry replacements in the next decade.
The American Society for Civil Engineers gave the state a C on overall infrastructure in 2019, its most recent survey — and that was before the West Seattle Bridge shut down. Putting off infrastructure fixes often increases their cost. Neglected maintenance can lead to drastic and costly repairs. The price of land purchases for new projects rises with regional growth.
Low interest rates mean the state will get the best bang for its bucks on bonding out project costs. Federal transportation money that can augment state spending is a priority for President Joe Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress. Infrastructure projects can provide long-lasting economic stimulus across the state in cities and towns hit hard by the pandemic economy, both for workers on the projects and for communities with improved mobility.
Four state lawmakers who see these opportunities have proposed transportation approaches worthy of close study. The three Democrats and one Republican each propose to spend billions toward a farsighted plan for years of preservation and construction work, funded by various combinations of state taxes, fees and bonds. This bipartisan recognition of the depth of the problem and the need for immediate action bodes well for meaningful results this year.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, proposes a 3-cent increase to the state’s 49-cent-per-gallon tax, which already ranks sixth among states; Senate transportation Chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, suggests 6 cents. These are modest hikes compared to the 18 cents per gallon that House transportation chair Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, proposes, in part to avoid new state debt. Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, proposed increasing the gas tax by 3 cents initially and allowing that to raise with inflation, as Fey’s tax would.
This is where environmental policy comes in. Paying the high cost of a transportation package should begin with setting a price on carbon production, as proposed in each of the three Democrats’ plans.
The transportation sector is responsible for 44% of Washington’s carbon footprint. Worth consideration, Sen. Reuven Carlyle’s Senate Bill 5126 would establish cap-and-trade carbon limits and allotments for companies to purchase. While reducing the state’s carbon emissions, its potential revenues could generate billions of dollars to repair and improve infrastructure.
This new revenue source would not subtract from existing state funds. Sen. King’s proposal would divert vehicle sales taxes to transportation projects. But that would leave a budgeting hole in the state’s general fund. Cap-and-trade money could also keep a gas-tax increase from being overly onerous.
Statewide, voters have repeatedly shown at the ballot box a willingness to reject car-related fees viewed as onerous. Tim Eyman built a lucrative career promoting ballot initiatives on this premise before running into legal trouble over his campaign-finance shenanigans. A transportation package that takes too much from drivers for non-drivers’ benefit runs the risk of being thrown out, by initiative voters or future legislatures.
Hobbs’ preliminary $18 billion, 16-year “Forward Washington” proposal sensibly aims for bipartisan backing. It includes a broad geographic distribution of road and transportation improvements for a package voters statewide can benefit from and stand with.
This approach deserves strong support from lawmakers of both parties in crafting a plan that can generate improvements for years to come.