by Leo Brine
Transit advocates tolerated the House and Senate’s transportation committees’ underwhelming 2021-23 biennium budget announcement last month believing that legislators were cueing up a more multimodal approach in the pending transportation package. (The previous budget announcement was about funding earlier commitments made by previous legislative sessions.) However, the House Transportation committee unveiled an all-new 16-year transportation package (HB 1564) on Thursday that, once again, provides large sums of funding for highway expansion projects and road and highway maintenance while shortchanging transit.
Troubled by how few dollars the House allocated for multimodal and green initiatives when compared to the highway-related initiatives, advocates are now hoping for big changes before Democrats move the package to Governor Inslee’s desk.
The new transportation package, dubbed “Miles Ahead Washington,” allocates a total of $22.3 billion to funding transportation initiatives. Seventy percent of the funds ($15.7 billion) go to “highway-related initiatives,” including $6.1 billion for highway expansion projects and $4.6 billion for maintenance and repairs over the next 16 years. Meanwhile, the House allocates about 25 percent of the package, $5.5 billion, to multimodal projects, including investments in multimodal transport, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, safe routes to schools, and rural mobility transit grants.
Mobility rights activists say the new proposal is too similar to past transportation packages, with similar funding shortfalls. “We can’t support it because there’s not enough investment in transit service and in sidewalks and other kinds of pedestrian access,” Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program at Disability Rights Washington (DRW) said. “It makes it hard to get excited about something that we see as just so far from the unmet needs.”
DRW wanted the package to fund new projects related to expanding transportation access, maintaining and repairing roads to prevent pedestrian and motorist deaths as well as sidewalk and bike path repair projects. Instead, the proposal prioritizes highway expansion projects, like a $500,000 widening project on SR 18 in southeastern King County. The House’s proposed new projects list for 2021-22 includes less than $100,000 for new bike and pedestrian projects.
During the public hearing on the package, the bill’s prime sponsor, Representative Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) framed the spending as a necessary investment on overdue maintenance. He said the package focuses on maintaining the state’s transportation infrastructure so it’s not “an impediment to the ability for people to get around or the ability to grow our economy and we only can do that by keeping what we have in good shape. And, not to be critical, previous packages did not have that as a focus.”
The last transportation package the Legislature passed, 2015’s $16.1 billion “Connecting Washington,” primarily focused on expanding highways and roads; 67 percent went to highway and road projects versus 8 percent that went to multimodal projects. Connecting Washington was the product of a compromise between Republicans who wanted highway expansions and Democrats who relented on multimodal demands in order to get GOP votes to authorize a Sound Transit 3 package for the ballot. Admittedly, the new package does shift the balance slightly, and if you add the dollars for green initiatives to the $5.5 billion for multimodal projects, such as $95.7 million local carbon emission reduction grants, it bumps the non-highway portion to about 28 percent, or about $6.2 billion.)
Rep. Fey said, “This needs to be a fair and equitable package. This needs to take into consideration the long legacy of transportation projects that impacted communities and offered little opportunities.” The package does include $80 million for grants for variouus green investments in indigenous communities and $50 million to fund Connecting Communities, which directs money to clean transportation and, using an environmental justice lens, focuses on communities that faced the brunt of the ecological impacts from highways and previous transportation initiatives.
$15.7 billion for highways and roads versus $5.5 billion to multimodal, is like saying “because I’m going to have a side salad, I can eat as much meat as I want.” —Paulo Nunes-Ueno, Front and Centered
However, Paulo Nunes-Ueno, the transportation and land use policy lead at Front and Centered, an advocacy group for communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income people, does not believe Fey is putting enough transportation money where his mouth is. Nunes-Ueno says the current package is neither fair nor equitable. From his group’s perspective, making an equitable transportation system means expanding access to transportation. “Simply creating a wider roadway is not thinking about access to opportunity in an all-encompassing enough way,” he said.
Giving $15.7 billion for highways and roads versus $5.5 billion to multimodal, Ueno quipped, is like saying “because I’m going to have a side salad, I can eat as much meat as I want.”
“We have ribbon-cutting mania, where everybody in their district needs to have a project whether it’s needed or not,” Ueno concluded. “And at the same time, we’re neglecting enormous numbers of people who can’t even get to their freaking bus stop because there’s not a sidewalk.”
Advocates want to see a 50:50 investment ratio, with half the funds in the proposal going to highway and road maintenance and road projects, and half going to investments that will help the state transition to a green multimodal model.
The 18th Amendment to the Washington state’s constitutions hinders the legislature’s ability to achieve that ratio because it specifies that taxes collected from the sale of fuels can only be spent on “highway purposes.” To address this obstacle, the Senate is working on creating additional sources of transportation revenue by passing a cap and trade bill (SB 5126), which would put a cap on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a company can release per year by limiting emissions and making companies purchase credits from the state for every ton of greenhouse gasses the emit. Since cap and trade generates revenue from a company’s emissions rather than fuel sales, it can be used to fund non-highway related infrastructure projects.
Not every environmental group is opposed to the proposal. Washington Conservation Voters’ lobbyist Cliff Traisman said the House has done a good job directing money to clean transportation and funding programs to study the effects of previous transportation packages on communities. He added he’d like to see more investments in communities that have been left behind by previous transportation packages.
Traisman, sounding the sanguine note of a longtime lobbyist who’s trying to nudge legislators along, added, “We did not see the full picture today.” He’s hopeful, he said, that the Senate’s transportation package will reveal how big the legislature’s overall commitment to multimodal priorities actually is.
The Senate Transportation committee, chaired by moderate Democrat Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), will create a new transportation revenue package. Hobbs has opposed clean fuel bills in the past as well as pushed for less spending in general when it comes to transportation. Last month, when the Senate Democrats unveiled their 2021-2023 transportation budget, Hobbs said it was structured around “keeping the lights on.” Advocates are nervous their pending revenue package will track to the same philosophy.