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News / Northwest

Washington highways, aging ferries get big slice of $13.5B transportation plan

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: April 25, 2023, 7:32am

The Washington state House and Senate agreed on a nearly $13.5 billion transportation budget over the weekend, a plan that spends heavily on major highway construction already in progress, the state ferry system, climate-focused projects and the court-mandated fix of the state’s fish culverts.

The agreement, which now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his consideration, marks the end of a legislative session focused more on housing and public safety, but with significant implications for the state’s transportation system, as legislators struggle to keep up with basic maintenance while simultaneously seeking to reduce pollution and make roads safer.

Inflation and labor scarcity have driven up the cost of just about every transportation project in the state’s portfolio, seeding urgency among legislators to roll out dollars as quickly as they can to maximize their power.

Unlike in 2022, when Democratic lawmakers pushed through a 16-year, $17 billion package without Republican support, 2023’s session was highly bipartisan; the budget cleared both chambers with almost no opposition from either party.

The main source of disagreement was from Inslee, who earlier expressed concerns that the proposed plan overpromised on what it could deliver, while underspending on maintenance and the State Patrol.

The largest slice of the budget will go toward completing long-simmering highway projects, including Highway 520, Highway 18, Interstate 405, the Highway 167/509 Puget Sound Gateway project and the US 395 North Spokane Corridor project.

Completing those megaprojects, first promised in 2015, was the top priority for Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chair of the House Transportation Committee.

“You’re not going to get people to vote for future packages unless you live up to your obligations,” he said.

Inslee voiced his worry the budget promised too much on what capital projects it could deliver at a time when finding contractors and materials is still difficult. As a result, he warned, projects would have to be reprioritized without input from lawmakers.

Legislators added a stipulation that the Legislature be informed as quickly as possible whenever a delay was expected to give lawmakers a chance to weigh in.

But Inslee’s concerns remained.

“I think you can anticipate that several years out that legislators are going to have to make some hard decisions about which [projects] move forward and which ones are paused,” he said Sunday evening, after the proposal was sent to his desk.

But ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he believes the projects included can and will be delivered.

“This budget cycle, more than even in the past, we didn’t just take it on face value,” he said. “We really drilled down.”

This year marks the first time legislators had money from the auction of carbon credits to spend. The transportation budget makes use of nearly $1 billion from those auctions toward projects intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s transportation sector: bicycle and pedestrian projects, electric vehicle charging stations, e-bike vouchers, ferry electrification and others.

The budget also comes just a week after the ferry Walla Walla ran aground on Bainbridge Island, a stark reminder of the ferry system’s fragility. Lawmakers set aside $1.3 billion for the ferries in order to maintain the boats in service and commission the construction of five more hybrid-electric ships. The question of who builds those has not yet been answered.

Roughly half a billion dollars is set aside for maintenance of roads, although Inslee has said the state should be spending more. A recent report from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian organization that ranked states’ highways based on spending and condition for 27 years, pegged Washington’s as 46th overall and dead last in terms of maintenance.

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Fey said he thinks the maintenance numbers are “good,” while also acknowledging that they must weigh priorities, of which there are many in Washington.

Both Republicans and Democrats started this year’s session promising action on the state’s rising toll of traffic deaths — the most in more than 30 years. Proposals to lower the blood alcohol limit and ban right turns on red failed, while lawmakers signed off on heightened penalties for negligent drivers, cameras in work zones and signing bonuses for traffic state patrol officers. A bill requiring and subsidizing driver’s education for young people passed, but was amended down to where it’s now mostly a plan to make a plan.

The budget includes funding for bike and pedestrian routes to schools, improvements along a deadly road in Pierce County, and changes to how intersections are built. The Legislature also promised $10 million to map the state’s sidewalks, which are far out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Inslee said Sunday his team is still reviewing the budgets sent to his desk. Fey said he’s hopeful the governor will sign off on the bill. In the past, Inslee used line-item vetoes to strike parts of bills he disagrees with, but the Washington Supreme Court ruled at least one use of that tactic as unconstitutional: the 2019 state transportation budget.