As Clark County residents know, failure to invest in infrastructure has consequences that grow exponentially over time. Years of failing to fix the Interstate 5 Bridge and the I-5 corridor have manifested in a situation that hampers the economy of the entire region.
While an I-5 replacement is the most important transportation issue in our corner of Washington, it also is a project that impacts commerce throughout the state. And it is only one example of transportation needs in Washington.
Lawmakers must make transportation a focus of this year’s legislative session. Although it is a short, 60-day session, solutions devised this year — or ignored — will linger for years to come. The Washington State Ferry system, which serves 23 million passengers a year, is in need of attention; various interchanges require upgrades to meet the demands of a growing population; and continued efforts to enhance public transit are needed to help reduce carbon emissions.
On top of that, overlooked road maintenance continues to be an issue. As Roger Millar, Washington’s secretary of transportation, told The Columbian’s Editorial Board in October, his department spends about $925 million a year on maintaining and preserving its $200 billion in assets when it should be spending about $2 billion.
“It’s kind of like putting a 20-year roof on your house fully intending to replace it in 40,” he said. “At some point your furniture is going to get wet. … We’re not managing these assets; we’re managing the degradation of these assets.”
To many residents, the thought of increasing transportation spending might sound like anathema. Washington, after all, has a state gas tax of 49.4 cents per gallon — the eighth-highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation. In many recent years, our state’s gas tax has been among the three highest in the nation. The 49.4 cents is on top of a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, a rate that has been unchanged since 1993.
While large transportation packages in 2003, 2005 and 2015 were structured around gas-tax increases, discussions in Olympia this year could have a different focus. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed more than $1 billion in additional spending for transportation, financed by dipping into the state’s operating fund and through money from the federal American Rescue Plan. The Build Back Better bill being negotiated in Congress could include money for transit projects.
The question is whether legislators can reach an agreement during the short session.
“I’m not sure it’s going to happen in this session,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee. “There hasn’t been a lot of talk across the aisle.”
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who takes over as chair of the committee, said the Legislature could produce a $12 billion to $15 billion transportation package without raising taxes. “Is this a time to add additional costs when families are still struggling to get through the pandemic?” he said.
Indeed, there’s never a good time to add additional costs for families. But the failure to do so has its own costs; congestion caused by inadequate infrastructure adds to gas costs for individuals and businesses while preventing the economy from reaching its potential.
As the people of Clark County can attest, transportation spending is an investment that pays quantifiable dividends. Lawmakers should make it a priority this year.