Washington state’s clogged transportation network caught a break in 2020, when COVID-19 slashed driving by 15% and erased 60% of transit ridership, giving public officials a year to punt on solutions.
Now that a new year has arrived, state legislators will feel new urgency to tackle gridlock, underfunded roads and bridges and the question of whether to pass a massive mobility plan.
Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, says he’ll take a hiatus from National Guard deployment so he can make a third attempt at brokering a multibillion dollar Forward Washington plan. Without a statewide package, Hobbs will lose another year in his quest to replace the jammed Highway 2 westbound trestle, which connects his constituents to Everett.
Gov. Jay Inslee, burned by voters‘ and lawmakers’ rejection of carbon pricing, will try again to jump-start his climate agenda by proposing $318 million for ferry electrification along with low-carbon fuel standards, $20 million for pedestrian, bike and school-zone improvements and $3.25 million to plan future high-speed rail.
“To meet our greenhouse-gas reduction targets, we must aggressively diversify our transportation infrastructure,” Inslee said. “Electrifying our vehicles, vessels and buses is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon pollution.”
The state is far behind its target of reducing carbon emissions 25% by 2035.
On the minority side, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, supports minimal or zero new taxes in 2021 while citizens are still hurting from COVID-related business restrictions. Lawmakers should limit their ambitions to maintenance and projects already approved, he said.
Expect a tug of war over whether carbon taxes should be funneled to transit as opposed to plain gasoline taxes which the state constitution’s 18th Amendment reserves for roads.
As these visions compete, drama in the virtual Capitol will be compounded by less transparency, as public testimony and committee hearings move online, said Barkis.
Hobbs joked in a phone interview that, “I would rather do my military duty, because at least I know who my enemy is. Do I really want to go there [Olympia] and get the crap beat out of me? Anything you do will be judged.”
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, forecasts a tough path to agreement, because at least three or four versions will be proposed. Lawmakers must reach a bipartisan, 60% agreement to sell bonds to finance projects.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, drafted a 12-year, $14.3 billion Evergreen Plan heavy on carbon fees, plus a tax on luxury aircraft and yachts. She would fund maintenance at $1.9 billion, which is far above other proposals but avoids lane additions — except for counting Hobbs’ favored Highway 2 as “deferred preservation.”
“In the Puget Sound region, managing traffic requires making sure we’re not just adding stuff to our system, and pushing traffic down to the next exit,” she said.
She called for “environmental justice” in neighborhoods like those around the Duwamish River, divided by historical freeway projects. Aircraft, fossil-fueled ships and freight trucks course through there even during the epidemic. That will continue, she said, so cleaner fuels are a must.
Hobbs said he’s rewriting the package he proposed in 2019 for $16.6 billion and 10 years.
The biggest project, nominated for $3.175 billion in his original list, is the I-5 Columbia River Crossing. Oregon and Washington last year resumed planning after a 2014 political collapse. The states would replace freeway drawbridges built in 1917 and 1958.
Hobbs said he’s inclined to add $75 million toward repair of the cracked West Seattle high-rise bridge. He sees that of statewide value for port trade and regional travel. It also encourages Seattle lawmakers to back a statewide plan.
“This is a democracy. It’s about trying to get more votes,” said Hobbs.
That’s far beyond the $19 million grant the Seattle Department of Transportation suggested in talks with other lawmakers.
“I really appreciate Sen. Hobbs expressing an interest in the West Seattle Bridge,” said Heather Marx, Seattle mobility director, when told about the higher target. Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, called bridge funding part of “a grand bargain of proposals” being circulated.
Forward Washington’s second-costliest road project is Highway 2, at $1.5 billion in the initial plan. Traffic has tripled since 1980, and a new westbound trestle may add a bus-carpool lane or rely partly on tolls.
Other big-ticket items include $1.7 billion toward ferries, terminals and vessel electrification; $1 billion to highway preservation; a toll-funded $470 million to widen an I-405 bottleneck through Bothell; and a $300 million widening of Highway 3 at Gorst on the Kitsap Peninsula.
This past fall’s 57-vote victory by Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, over progressive challenger Ingrid Anderson, adds horsepower to Forward Washington.
“I 100% feel congestion relief has got to be the No. 1 priority in a transportation bill,” Mullet told the pro-driving Eastside Transportation Association.
His district was already nominated for $285 million to widen Highway 18 along Tiger Mountain where four lanes narrow to two. People have died in head-on wrecks.
But Mullett now proposes another Eastside project — interchange expansion where I-90 meets I-405 in Bellevue, especially coming from Issaquah toward Lake Washington. It’s common for 60-mph traffic to pass exiting 20-mph traffic when approaching the junction.
“You basically back up all the way to Bellevue College, trying to make that turn,” he said in an interview.
Hobbs replied he was willing to add a I-90/I-405 project to Forward Washington.
He declined to release a draft list until he can fact-check details of certain projects with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The search for money
Previous versions would cost equivalent to 15 cents per gallon, through either direct gas tax or the effect of carbon taxes passed from refineries to consumers.
Other options exist, such as a pay-by-mile user fee, but that takes years to establish, said retired Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who worked on a study group to consider 10 to 13 concepts.
Mullet, who drives an electric Tesla, predicts the public and lawmakers may have an appetite for an 8- to 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. He said a similar-sized carbon fee is also needed to help the state fight global warming. Hobbs said he’d support a carbon tax if at least half flows back to the transportation budget.
But groups such as the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition will seek money to help bus agencies weather COVID-related sales-tax and fare losses, along with equity programs to aid communities who are subject to pollution. They’ll need full transit access again soon, coalition lobbyist Bryce Yadon said.
“If we wait a week or month too long, we’re going to have big impacts in terms of people being able to get to work, or a doctor’s appointment,” Yadon said.
One idea making the rounds is to push salmon-stream restoration — pegged at $3.5 billion to replace damaging road culverts — out of Forward Washington into the general fund.
That way, the transportation budget would have more slack to fund more bond debt and projects.
That begs the question of whether the Legislature should make fish compete against education, law enforcement, public health and other state services. If money or credit runs low, maybe culverts can be funded by a yearly fee of $50 on each parcel of land in the state, Mullet mentioned.
A loss of toll-lane traffic in 2020 brings another dilemma. Though reduced income won’t tarnish the state’s credit, it could hinder an effort by suburban cities and legislators to build projects in the I-405 and linked Highway 167 corridors.
Now that thousands have practiced working from home, it’s unclear when travel demand might revert to pre-COVID days. Does Washington still need greater capacity?
Sen. King, of Yakima, said he’s open to a big package — and is even writing a version himself. But he’s reluctant to raise fuel costs immediately.
“How do you put more taxation on people who are struggling just to survive in 2020? We have people who have been living on unemployment insurance and doing what they can to scrape through and feed their families,” he said.