Fixing Washington’s ‘broken’ transportation funding system

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Fixing Washington’s ‘broken’ transportation funding system

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(The Center Square) – State and county officials have recently highlighted a severe shortage of funding for transportation infrastructure in Washington that includes roads, bridges and highways. However, the overall problem stems from a variety of contributing factors that are causing one state legislator to call for an overhaul of the system.

“I think the problem is really where the priorities are,” Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, said in an interview with The Center Square. Goehner is a member of the House Transportation Committee and recently penned a guest column for The Wenatchee World arguing the state needed to cease unnecessary transportation projects and shift toward maintenance work.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, there is an annual $1.1 billion shortfall between the funding it needs for maintenance and preservation, and what it actually is appropriated. The result is a $11 billion backlog of projects in need of funding. For the 2022 fiscal year, the Washington State Ferries vessel preservation backlog alone was $269.7 million.

One issue is that state gas tax revenue is not only projected to decline over time due to increased vehicle efficiency and the rise of electric vehicles, but more of it will be used to pay off debt services. By 2029, it is expected to consume 44%, compared to 37% in 2020.

Another factor is the rising price tag for projects due to increased increased construction and materials costs.

Further contributing to the problem is a workforce shortage. According to a 2022 WSDOT report regarding its highway construction program, the agency has 243 fewer full-time employees than it should.

The staffing shortage is causing budgetary underspending, despite soaring project costs. In the 2019-21 biennium, the state agency underspent almost $1 billion for capital programs compared to what the Legislature appropriated. That included underspending on preservation by $191,000.

With state transportation funding at its highest levels ever, the debate among some is not where to find new money but how current funding is spent.

A major point of contention for many critics of the 2021 Climate Commitment Act is that, while according to some analysts it has contributed to the rise in gas prices, none of its revenue is directed to repairing or replacing existing infrastructure like the state gas tax. Instead, that money has been appropriated for carbon emission reduction projects such as electrifying the state’s ferry fleet.

“That could be going to shore up the roads and bridges,” Goehner said.

Yet, Goehner isn’t in favor necessarily of CCA revenue to fund maintenance and preservation as the state County Road Administrative Board did recently at a Washington State Transportation Commission meeting.

“The people that are paying it are probably people that are least able to, because it’s people primarily committed to a vehicle as their sole means of transportation,” he said. “It unfairly burdens those who don’t have options. It’s time to take a good hard look at what we’ve been doing and why it appears to be a broken system. We’ve got to take a good hard look at our entire funding structure.”

The use of CCA revenue for maintenance and preservation doesn’t have support in the Governor’s Office either. In an email to The Center Square, Communications Director Mike Faulk wrote that “state law is very clear about allowable uses of CCA funding, and maintenance and preservation are not an appropriate use. It does allow for other significant transportation investments that we are already making that have direct climate and decarbonization benefits.”

In his email, Faulk also conveyed similar criticism of the state Legislature raised by Washington State Department of Transportation Director Amy Scarton at a recent WSTC meeting, in which she accused the Legislature of not prioritizing infrastructure preservation.

During this year’s legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed delaying new transportation projects due to increased costs and fewer workers available. The Legislature ultimately sided against Inslee on the matter and enacted a $13.4 billion transportation budget with strong bipartisan support.

Prior to the final budget’s passage, Office of Financial Management Director David Schumacher wrote a letter to the Transportation Committees arguing that “the legislative budgets not only ignore the reality of project delivery, but they also fall short of addressing the significant maintenance and preservation needs throughout our state and the ongoing need to keep drivers safe with adequate patrolling.” He warned that the lack of maintenance funding “would impact the agency’s ability to keep mountain passes open during winter storms, repair damages to highways, clean up litter and graffiti, and other critical activities needed to keep our roads and bridges open and travelers safe.”

“The governor has been raising this issue with legislators for years, and it is why he proposed delaying so many projects ahead of last year’s legislative session,” Faulk wrote in his email.

During the bill signing in May, Inslee took transportation leaders in the Legislature to task, saying they had “failed to fix the misalignment between projects the Legislature wants, and projects that can actually be completed. This budget does not adequately address the long-term shortfalls due to declining gas tax revenues and increased costs.

“They failed to fix the misalignment between the cost of maintaining and preserving what we already have in favor of adding new projects. By choosing to prioritize new projects, this budget leaves us without adequate funding for things as simple as litter cleanup or as crucial as bridge repairs.”

Scarton favors greater spending discretion within the state agency, an idea Goehner says makes sense when it comes to preservation and maintenance projects.

“We should have confidence in the people we put into those positions,” he said. “As a county commissioner I relied on our engineers. I’d be inclined to appropriate money to the regions to determine what their priorities are rather than a long list of projects that we want to see done.”

However, he added that “in my opinion, part of the problem is the secretary of the transportation (department) is right under the governor. In the five years I’ve been there, it’s become somewhat political.”

He also said that “we need to make sure we have to strike a balance, make sure that our infrastructure is sound and we’ve got a good plan, and in the same plan we are looking forward into the future. To try and just focus on one at the expense of the other – that’s really been our downfall.”

Inslee will release his proposed supplemental transportation budget in December.

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