Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

His counterpart in the House, Fey, was a bit more sympathetic (and defensive). “I get the criticism,” he said, but argued that his package was “more value-based, and a lot of our effort was put into programs,” to lower emissions, increase transit access and invest in communities that are overburdened by their proximity to highways. Fey said there was “a handful or less” of representatives asking to trade their votes for projects in their districts.

Fey added that WSDOT does not study every potential project, nor does it have solutions to all the state’s transportation woes, so legislators are key to identifying district needs.

WSDOT has compiled a list of bike and pedestrian projects that need funding. TCC’s Serebrin said the department could do more research to determine what other projects the state should fund.

There have been previous efforts to bring state and local agencies into the decision-making process. During the 2020 session, transit and environmental advocates tried to get the legislature to pass a bill they called “Transportation For All” (SB 6398/HB 2688) that would have required the state to devise transportation goals and only select projects that would meet those goals. In turn, the legislature could approve and fund projects based on merit. However, neither chamber’s transportation committee passed the bill, and it died early in the legislative process.

The problem with that approach, Hobbs said, “is you’re taking away power from people who are elected by their communities to represent them, so I don’t like that idea.” He said lawmakers would have little reason to vote for new taxes if there’s no guarantee those taxes would pay for projects they want for their districts.

The state’s gas tax generates roughly $5 billion per year, but Washington’s 18th amendment restricts spending that revenue to “highway purposes,” which excludes transit projects. Disability Rights Washington’s Zivarts said in order to fund multimodal infrastructure, lawmakers would need new revenue sources that aren’t restricted to highway spending.

Lawmakers don’t have enough available revenue to adequately fund a comprehensive transportation package.

Hobbs said only 12 percent of his package would add new roads and expand highways; the majority allocated to roads goes to maintenance and fulfilling the state’s obligation to get rid of culverts that prevent the passage of migrating fish.

According to a 2020 Joint Transportation Committee report , the state has chronically underfunded transportation and has no clear path to identify new funding. Currently, car tab fees and gas taxes generate the majority of revenue for transportation packages, which Rep. Fey said are each “problematic in their own way,” because they’re both unpopular and regressive.

Fey, like the advocates, wants to create new revenue sources. Two bills lawmakers passed this session should provide more than $5 billion in funding; the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and clean fuels standards bill (HB 1091) will generate revenue that will not be restricted to road projects. Cap-and-trade will make businesses lower their greenhouse gas emissions or buy permits from the state in order to pollute

Democratic senators added language to the two carbon bills that said the legislature had to pass a transportation revenue package for either bill to take effect. Tying the legislation to a future package helped convince enough senators to vote for the bills.

However, on Monday, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed this trigger language from the bills, allowing their programs to start in January 2023. Inslee said he vetoed the subsections because they hinder the state’s ability to combat climate change. “I applaud the extraordinary efforts of the Legislature in moving this policy forward, but we cannot delay its implementation until some unknown time in the future. The crisis is now, and we must act now,” he said.

Democratic leadership said they will ask the state’s courts to determine if the governor’s veto of subsections of the clean fuels bill is an overreach of his constitutional powers. Hobbs said he is still committed to getting a revenue package through, though it may take additional time.

The vetoes do not change how the state can use revenues from the two bills, so legislators can still tap it as a fund source for a future transportation package. Fey said he wants to invest the revenue cap-and-trade generates in multimodal projects to reduce carbon emissions.

Legislators have drawn up a list of 33 other possible tax and fee increases, including an increase to the rental car tax, which Fey said is a popular option because it would be paid by out of state travelers. Some of the other options, he says, are not as enticing. The state could raise vehicle license fees, which voters have tried to lower by initiative, or create a road usage tax that people would pay based on how many miles they drive. Fey said he and his colleagues need to discuss the options more before making any decisions.

A road usage tax and higher car tab fees do have problems. For instance, the tax burden would still be greatest on lower-income people. Transportation advocates say those who commute to work every day would rack up miles—and taxes—while people who work from home would not be struck by the tax.

At a press conference after the end of the session on April 25, Democratic Caucus leaders Sen. Andy Billig (D-3, Spokane) and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-27, Tacoma) said they may convene a special session before the start of next year’s session to pass a transportation revenue package, which Inslee said he’d support. Fey would prefer coming back in 2022 to pass a package because “there needs to be some more listening on the part of transportation leaders in the state to what people have to say and what the opportunities are.”

Hobbs said he’s hesitant to create new taxes to fund transportation, especially if lawmakers won’t have a say in how the funds are used. He hoping the federal government’s infrastructure plan offers some relief so “there’s some revenue [options] we don’t have to use.”

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan invests $621 billion in fixing roads, bridges, highways and other parts of America’s infrastructure. The package could alleviate the burden Washington has when it comes to repairing roads and improving infrastructure. Fey said he wants federal help to remove fish barriers, improve ferries and replace the Columbia River bridge, but does not expect any assistance to fix the revenue shortfall.

The president’s plan would also invest $85 billion into America’s existing transit systems, potentially helping to expand Sound Transit and King County Metro service. The federal government has allocated $1.9 billion to Seattle transit agencies so far. In 2020, Congress passed two relief packages that gave Sound Transit $346 million and King County Metro $502 million. Since then, the feds passed a third relief package, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which allocates roughly $867 million to the Seattle area for transit. The Puget Sound Regional Council will determine later this summer how much of the ARPA funds each agency will get, a PSRC spokesperson said.

Sound Transit and King County Metro both need more money to replenish their budgets after the pandemic caused major revenue shortfalls for both agencies.

Sound Transit CEO, Peter Rogoff, said he wants to use the federal aid to reduce the agency’s $7.9 billion budget shortfall. “We are aggressively pursuing every dollar we can at the federal level to help shrink that gap,” Rogoff said. Sound Transit’s board also sent a letter to US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg asking for an additional $1.9 billion allocation for the Lynnwood and Federal Way expansion projects. Rogoff said this type of federal assistance would free up local tax dollars that could be used to further alleviate the budget shortfall.

A spokesman for King County Metro said the agency would use additional aid to restore the agency’s budget and get them back on track with vehicle electrification and service expansion.

Advocates said they don’t care if lawmakers reconvene during the interim or next year to pass a transportation package, so long as it’s the right package. “Honestly, I just want to see the best outcome,” Missik said.

Fey and Sen. Hobbs will need to reconcile a $5 billion spending difference between their proposal, come up with revenue sources and determine where to make their investments. Fey invests more than double what Hobbs invests in transit, ferry electrification, van pools and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

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