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packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities.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.