The state should invest in repairing aging roads and bridges before building new ones.
WASHINGTON needs a forward-thinking transportation-investment package that wisely and responsibly builds the system we need for the 21st century. Unfortunately, neither the state House nor Senate has gotten it right. Both have proposed packages that are bad for our transportation system, the environment and for our fiscal future.
Here are six reasons legislators should reject the House and Senate transportation packages and go back to the drawing board:
• They neglect repair and maintenance. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, 382 bridges in Washington were structurally deficient at the end of 2014. Likewise, cash-strapped local governments simply don’t have the money to keep their roadways in good shape. As these maintenance backlogs show, Washington desperately needs a “fix-it-first” policy that prioritizes repairing existing roads before building new ones. Yet the House and the Senate neglect critical maintenance needs, spending at least five times as much on building new roads as on repairing existing ones.
• They’re full of “pork.” Many road projects were included in the package to woo legislators rather than because they’re good public policy. For example, both packages propose a whopping $1.8 billion on the so-called “Puget Sound Gateway” project, which would expand highways 167 and 509. Many components of the project lack a sound justification and would divert resources from other pressing needs. Worse, as former Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald has pointed out, it would foster sprawl by connecting the Interstate 5 corridor with the urban fringe of King and Pierce counties — a result that MacDonald suggested would be “wholly antithetical to the Puget Sound region’s transportation [and] land-use sustainability.” The gateway is just one example: Both packages include numerous other projects that the state transportation department never identified as priorities.
• They worsen environmental harm. The new roads that the transportation packages would fund would likely increase polluted water runoff, promote sprawl, harm natural habitats and boost climate-warming emissions.
• They boost highway debt. Today, debt payments on old highway projects siphon more than half of the state’s fuel-tax revenue, a figure that will rise to 70 percent within five years. These packages would add to the state’s highway debt load.
• They’re inefficient at creating jobs. Numerous studies have found that maintenance, repair and investments in transit, biking and walking create more jobs per dollar than new highway construction. One study by the University of Utah Metropolitan Research Center found that, dollar for dollar, public transportation investments generate 31 percent more jobs than new bridge and road construction; repair work on roads and bridges generates 16 percent more jobs than new construction. By focusing on new highways rather than maintenance or other transportation priorities, both House and Senate packages shortchange the job-creating potential of transportation investments.
• They ignore today’s transportation reality. The way we get around is changing. Total driving miles on state roads have barely budged for more than a decade. More and more Washingtonians are substituting “virtual” travel for some trips, while others are choosing to get around on transit, on foot or on bikes. The Internet has unleashed new transportation services — from next-generation taxi services to real-time traffic information — that lessen the need for private cars and new highway lanes. Meanwhile, America’s young people have grown less interested in cars than previous generations.
But both the House and Senate transportation packages look backward rather than forward. They lock the state into a long-term bet on transportation strategies that might have made sense in the 1950s but ignores the demographic and technological changes under way now in the 21st century.
If either of these flawed proposals sail through Olympia, Washington would be paying for the consequences for decades. With billions of taxpayer dollars at stake, it’s not enough for our legislators to pass a transportation package with a few good elements. Instead, they should chart a genuinely responsible pathway forward for our transportation future. Our legislative leaders can do better than the transportation packages they’ve proposed. For the sake of our transportation system, our environment and our fiscal health, we need them to do better.