The Washington state House and Senate both passed a new 16-year, nearly $17 billion transportation funding package Thursday, sending the legislation to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature with just hours remaining in the short 2022 legislative session.
The final product promises large-scale investments in highways, ferries, and bike and pedestrian corridors. It goes beyond the traditional list of members’ favorite road projects to provide $6 billion for transit and preservation needs all over the state, to be chosen throughout the 16 years.
“I think this is a transformative transportation investment,” said the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
“We are looking at the people that are using that asphalt and concrete, how it’s serving them, how it’s benefiting them, how it is adding to their life,” said Rep. Bill Ramos, D-Issaquah. “Because everyone in our state is affected by transportation, that is for certain.”
The package, which both defines the sources of the money and it will be spent, passed the two chambers Thursday mostly along party lines, another departure from past spending measures that won support from both sides of the aisle. Republicans were united in their opposition, casting the investments as favoring the state’s west side and crafted without any input from their side.
“Our citizens were shortchanged, because there was not interaction with both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said on the floor of the Senate Thursday.
Inslee had pressed legislators to send him a plan for new transportation spending and is expected to sign it.
Both Republicans and Democrats agreed on the need, if not the mechanism, for heightened transportation spending in order to finish long-promised but increasingly expensive highway projects, catch up on backlogged maintenance, and begin investments in troubled and crowded corridors.
The plan sets aside $406 million to finish the Seattle portion of Highway 520 and $380 million to wrap construction for new bus and express lanes on Interstate 405. It also backfills funding for Highway 509 near Tacoma, I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, and I-5 between Everett and Marysville.
Washington will spend another nearly $3 billion on new highway projects. Topping that list is $1 billion toward a new Interstate 5 crossing between Washington and Oregon over the Columbia River, even as Oregon legislators have yet to finalize their own plans. The state will also spend $640 million on widening Highway 18, over the objection of some environmental groups who want to halt any new highway expansion projects.
Large portions of the promised spending were cast as obligations for the state to fulfill, including $3 billion toward maintenance of existing highways, nearly $2.5 billion toward fish culverts as required by a court order and over $1 billion for the state’s beleaguered ferry system.
The package’s framework was built by the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees, Liias and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma. Both pushed for investing in alternatives to car travel. As a result, the state will spend more than $1 billion on “active transportation” projects targeted toward bicyclists and pedestrians, plus $3 billion on transit programs that will pave the way for free ridership to anyone 18 and under. It also sets aside $150 million for high speed rail west of the Cascades, which would only be spent if the state can secure federal investment. Also, $50 million will go toward improving Aurora Avenue in Seattle for pedestrians.
“They are investments that are very important that have been ignored for so many years,” Fey said.
This will be the fourth transportation funding measure in the last 20 years. Unlike those previous packages, this one does not include a hike in the state’s gas tax. Instead, it’s funded through a mix of revenue from Washington’s new carbon-pricing system, transfers from the state’s operating fund, federal dollars, fee increases and diverted tax dollars from the state’s public works account.
The negotiations over the plan have largely excluded Republicans, much to their frustration. They questioned the Democrats’ plan for funding the measure and criticized the proposal as too light on highway maintenance and too heavy on transit, bike and pedestrian investments. Republicans repeatedly proposed permanently diverting taxes from motor vehicle sales toward transportation, but Democrats disliked the long-term commitment and instead forged their own path.
“We’re spending billions on bike and pedestrian paths, trails,” Rep Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said Thursday on the House floor. “All great things, but trails don’t reduce congestion, Mr. Speaker. Trails don’t get people out of their cars in a shorter period of time when they’re sitting on the freeway.”
The 16-year plan for the state’s transportation network has been championed by a mix of business, labor and advocacy organizations, who view it as essential for commerce in the state and a major step toward increasing access to public transit.
“This package represents a sea change in our approach to transportation investment, and will support climate justice, access to opportunity, cleaner air and water, and better public health,” Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said in a statement.
Some pedestrian and environmental organizations spoke out against the package’s continued investment in highways, calling their expansion “harmful,” especially in the context of the state’s larger needs.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.