Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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In Our View: Legislature must address infrastructure

The Columbian
Published:

A $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed this month by Congress and signed by President Biden should serve as an example for officials in our state.

For too long, the Legislature has kicked needed infrastructure spending down the road. And when lawmakers struck a grand bargain this year to force the issue, Gov. Jay Inslee undermined them through the use of a line-item veto.

The result of ignoring long-standing problems is that 416 bridges and more than 5,400 miles of highway in the state are rated as being in “poor” condition. And the state annually spends less than half the $2 billion the Department of Transportation says is needed for road maintenance. And the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives Washington’s infrastructure a grade of C.

The Interstate 5 Bridge is emblematic of these shortcomings. Rather than approving a proposal for a replacement bridge in 2013, lawmakers killed the plan. Nearly a decade later, discussions for a new Columbia River crossing are just now picking up steam – about the time we could have been holding a ribbon cutting.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed this month will help address some of those issues. Washington is scheduled to receive more than $8 billion in dedicated funds, including $4.7 billion in highway funding and $605 million for bridge replacement and repairs. There also is funding for items such as broadband access, transit, salmon recovery and electric-vehicle charging, and more is available through grants. A $5 billion Megaprojects Grant Fund appears ripe for contributing to a new I-5 Bridge.

As Sen. Patty Murray said: “Over time, communities will see this bill in action as families in the Yakima Valley finally get connected to high-speed internet, as Sound Transit expands light rail options in Puget Sound, as electric vehicle charging stations are built across our state, and so much more.”

All of that will be transformative for Washington, but it does not absolve state lawmakers of their duty to boost the economy, address climate change and improve the quality of life for residents. Federal money will have a significant impact, but well-targeted state spending still is required.

This year, the Legislature failed to produce a new transportation revenue package, instead opting for a work-around. Lawmakers passed climate legislation that included a provision requiring passage of a transportation bill in order for the legislation to take effect. Inslee vetoed that provision, drawing ire from members of both parties and eliminating any incentive for work on transportation funding.

Even with such incentives, passing a transportation bill will be a heavy lift for a variety of reasons. There is understandable reluctance to raise taxes, next year is a short legislative session, and 2022 is an election year for many lawmakers. Raising taxes might not be a good election-year strategy, but it would be good for Washington if the funding enhances our roads, bridges and airports. Infrastructure spending is an investment in the future that also creates immediate jobs.

Following passage of the federal bill, many pundits noted that President Trump had often declared “infrastructure week” while failing to deliver on his promises. Washington lawmakers must recognize the futility and long-term costs of such inaction. When it comes to infrastructure, Congress has fulfilled its duty to the American people; the Legislature should do the same.

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