In Our View: Congestion on Road Projects

The way Washington approaches major transportation tasks in need of overhaul

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Well, it's a start, albeit a tepid one. A report prepared for the Washington state Department of Transportation, examining how to organize state highway megaprojects, was unveiled last week and failed to offer any noteworthy revelations.

The only significant suggestion, according to The Seattle Times, is that the state should occasionally choose a contractor based not on the lowest bid or on factors such as design or scheduling proposals. Instead, a contractor sometimes should be chosen based upon track record and then collaborate with the state on engineering plans.

Good idea. But the process for planning and implementing major transportation projects in this state needs a more thorough review. At least, that is the thinking of state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman. King and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, met recently with The Columbian's editorial board, and they brought with them a laundry list of proposed changes for how Washington approaches transportation.

Among the ideas:

• Return sales tax revenue from transportation construction to the transportation budget. Currently, such revenue is directed to the general fund, and it would make sense for that money to go toward transportation projects.

• Implement state auditor's recommendations to reform the Ferry Vessel Construction Program. We mention this only because it provides an opening for a salient question: Why is the state in the ferry business? That is a query that calls for some examination.

• Open a dialogue about prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements on construction projects. According to King, prevailing wage laws in Washington increase construction costs by 10 to 15 percent.

• Add congestion relief to the state's required list of transportation priorities. Surprisingly, this is not already being practiced when large transportation projects are being planned.

• Use toll revenue for highway projects within the corridor being tolled. This -- along with a proposal to require that tolls be retired once a project's bonds are paid -- is especially relevant with regard to any future Columbia River Crossing construction. And it's exceptionally logical.

Largely because of opposition to the CRC, the Legislature adjourned earlier this year without passing a large transportation bill. Shortly after the adjournment, Gov. Jay Inslee suggested that lawmakers might consider a transportation bill that does not include the CRC, leaving a replacement I-5 bridge for consideration as part of a separate bill. We reiterate our opposition to such a proposal, which would essentially ask people in Clark County to help pay for projects all over the state without receiving due consideration for our most pressing transportation need.

Regardless of what the future holds for the CRC, Washington's form of transportation management is increasingly aggravating. The report for the department of transportation was commissioned last spring in the wake of the Highway 520 fiasco in Seattle, a boondoggle in which pontoons for the floating bridge were quickly found to be defective, leading to delays, repairs and cost overruns.

When necessary, Washington can work quickly and efficiently on transportation matters. A span of the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed in May, and by September a permanent replacement was in place with the cost coming in below the original estimate. But unless such efficiency becomes the norm, some changes are needed in how the state approaches transportation.