State Transportation Budgets Reflect Bygone Era

 

by Leo Brine

The House and Senate Transportation committees unveiled their transportation budgets (HB 1135, SB 5165) for the 2021-23 biennium Tuesday. Or, more accurately, they unveiled the state’s incorrigible commitment to highway and road expansion. Climate and transit activists hope this is the last budget of a bygone era. While they are unsurprised that the two budgets continue prioritizing road expansions, advocates say the transportation revenue packages expected next week must move away from putting more cement on the ground and move the state’s transportation infrastructure toward sustainability, equity, and climate action.

Tuesday’s Senate and House transportation budgets will each follow the typical process: committee votes, floor votes, and then switching houses. Legislators from both houses will then decide which bill moves forward and will hammer out details in a conference committee.

The Senate’s proposed transportation budget allocates $11.7 billion for various transportation projects and the House allocates $10.7 billion. Both direct money to projects—mostly highway expansions—that were a part of 2015’s transportation package, Connecting Washington.

Funding allocated to construction projects dwarfs funding for expansion of public transit access and green initiatives. For example, the House proposal allocates $453 million to widen I-405 between Renton and Bellevue and more than half a billion to the Puget Sound Gateway project, a massive highway expansion and extension megaproject in Pierce County.

The Senate bill would cut $260 million from the multimodal transportation account to fund Connect Washington and ferry maintenance. The House’s cut to the multimodal account is not as dramatic as the Senate’s—just $50 million, to fund ferry maintenance.

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past. As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future.”—Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director, Transportation Choices Coalition

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director at the Transportation Choices Coalition. “As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future. And that will look really different, and that will focus on transit, access to transit, maintaining the system we already have, and mitigating harm.”

During the public hearing on the Senate transportation budget, Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44, Issaquah) groused: “It wasn’t easy last year. Last year sucked, too. This year double sucked.” Hobbs said the priorities of the Transportation committee are “keeping the lights on” by maintaining roads and bridges, keeping ferries and buses operating and finishing Connecting Washington projects.

The transportation budgets are supported by the state’s gas tax, as well as state bonds and, this year, aid from federal pandemic relief funds, the American Rescue Plan Act. Washington’s gas consumption dropped during the pandemic and with it went a good chunk of revenue for the transportation budget. State projections show revenue for the 2019-21 biennium declining by $669 million, roughly 10 percent, and another $454 million in the 2021-23 biennium, about 6.5 percent. Over the next 10 years, transportation revenue is expected to decline by $1.9 billion. The state estimates it will be 10 years before gas consumption rates are back to their pre-pandemic levels.

Anna Zivarts, the director of disability and mobility initiatives at Disability Rights Washington, said the gas tax that props up the transportation budget is regressive. “We all know that the gas tax is at some point going to be an obsolete revenue stream,” she said. “The folks who can afford electric vehicles and not [have to] pay the gas tax are wealthier. And with the cost of living in a lot of communities being high, the people who have to commute further are lower-income” and are spending more on gas, thus contributing more to the system. Zivarts said while the tax is regressive, the state should use gas tax revenues to make the state’s transit infrastructure more equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Zivarts wants “a transportation system that doesn’t just build highways and bridges and roads for cars,” but one that gives access to more people “and starts to pay the real cost of maintenance and the real cost of mitigating the climate and environmental and public health impacts of highways.”

Senate Transportation Committee vice chair Rebecca Saldaña told PubliCola in an email, “I am working on making a new revenue package happen this session because in order to build back a more green, just, and inclusive transportation future in Washington state we must pass clean fuels legislation, decarbonize our economy, align electrification and broadband on our right of ways, and double down on public transit, and people centered safety.”

Zivarts wants “a transportation system starts to pay the real cost of maintenance and the real cost of mitigating the climate and environmental and public health impacts of highways.”

The House’s budget proposal allocates roughly $181 million to green initiatives, including two new electric ferries.

Legislators added equity measures to both budgets, including research into the impacts of current and historic transportation revenue packages on communities adjacent to highways.

A large chunk of funding has to go toward removing fish barriers and culverts, after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required the state to restore tribal fish runs by removing culverts that hinder fish passage under state-maintained roads.

Advocates say they will be happy with the new revenue plans as long as the legislature passes a new clean fuel standards bill to reduce carbon emissions. HB 1091 requires fuel companies to reduce carbon in fuels by 10 percent by 2028 and by 20 percent by 2035. Clean fuel bills have passed in the House in the past two sessions but have never made it past the Senate. The bill is currently scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Ways and Means committee on March 27.

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