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News / Northwest

Pavement politics: Roads chief, Washington legislators at odds on spending priorities

Transportation Secretary Roger Millar tells why the Inslee administration was upset lawmakers directed dollars to projects rather than highway upkeep.

By JERRY CORNFIELD, Washington State Standard
Published: June 26, 2023, 6:02am

When Washington Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar last month warned the state transportation system is “on a glidepath to failure,” it wasn’t the first time he’d issued such a dire forecast.

The state’s roads czar, along with his boss, three-term Gov. Jay Inslee, voiced concern in the legislative session about lawmakers putting too much money into projects and not enough into the increasingly costly upkeep of roads and bridges.

In a post-session memo to employees in May, Millar said this “misalignment” in the new 2023-25 transportation budget makes it likely the state will continue to fall behind on maintenance.

The two-year $13.4 billion budget allots $700 million each year for highway maintenance and preservation, about $350 million less than Millar has estimated is needed.

He also cited concerns the Legislature overpromised what the department can deliver given available resources. Millar wrote the governor signed the transportation budget “out of necessity, but not endorsement.”

It was a strong message from Millar, who joined the department in October 2015 as deputy secretary, then moved into the top job the following August after the Republican-led Senate voted to fire Secretary Lynn Peterson, who Inslee appointed to the position three years earlier.

Millar, 64, of Olympia, oversees an agency with 7,000 full-time equivalent workers and a $10 billion budget. He is the current president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

In an interview last week with the Standard, he spoke about electric vehicles, state ferries, the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge replacement and why, in his view, the system is still on a troubled path. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Washington has one of the nation’s highest gas taxes. Since 2015, two transportation funding packages – Connecting Washington and Move Ahead Washington – provide roughly $34 billion in new spending through 2038. What do you say to drivers who feel they have been chipping in, a lot, but are now being told it’s not enough and the system is failing?

We have been very upfront with the numbers. You have to operate the ferry system, you have to operate the highway system and you have to plow the snow. And you have the commitments that the Legislature made in Connecting Washington and the commitments they made in Move Ahead Washington. Put all of that together. It equals a lot more than we’ve got. When you don’t have enough money, you make some hard calls.

Our backlog on pavement is about $350 million a year. If you look at the cost escalation on the Puget Sound Gateway project, the Legislature had to find $280 million for that one project to keep it on schedule.

If there’s been a change to the positive, we are talking about preservation and maintenance. But to get the votes to pass the bill, [lawmakers] are also putting a whole bunch of projects in there that people want around the state.

Your memo seems to fault the Legislature. Do you and the governor bear any responsibility?

Our recommendation was to fund the preservation and push the other stuff out. The Legislature, which is their right, made a different decision. And once they make that informed decision, our job is to implement the decision and I communicated with my team because a number of them were very upset. They care about the facilities they’re responsible for, and they know that they’re woefully underfunded, and they know that stuff that should be done is not going to get done, and it affects them as professionals.

What do you mean by failure?

Failure is not going to be catastrophic. Failure is … a time when there will be a bridge that industry relies on to carry 80,000-pound loads that will be restricted to 40,000 pounds, or less.

There may be bridges that will be closed and detour routes established.

There will be highways that we’ll have to reduce the speed limits because it’s not safe, they’re too rough to travel at 60 miles an hour or 70 miles an hour.

You’re going to see more and more of the bandaids and duct tape. You know, the eight in the morning, during the rush hour, concrete panel replacements or fixing the expansion joints that pop at the worst possible times.

What you really want to do is go in there on schedule and replace them when they’re in fair condition, rather than letting them deteriorate to where it’s really expensive to replace them or deteriorate to a point where you’re playing Whack-a-Mole with them up and down the corridor.

In your memo, you say you’ve carried this broad message throughout your tenure.

In 2016, when I first got started, no one was talking about preservation and maintenance. By 2018, we had a pretty good idea that we owned roughly $200 billion worth of stuff and we should be spending about $2 billion a year on preservation and maintenance, and we were spending less than a billion.

With Move Ahead Washington, we finally got over 50 percent. So we were spending about $1.1 billion. The trajectory was the right direction. With the decisions the Legislature made in our 2023-25 budget, we’re back at 40%.

Why weren’t you and Gov. Inslee able to convince lawmakers to change course to keep on a glidepath to success?

Our recommendation to the governor and the governor’s recommendation to the Legislature was we’re going to have to push some [project] schedules out because the money is not there. And the decision the Legislature made was to move the money to build the projects and not spend the money on preservation in this biennium.

Do you think the roads, highways and bridges will be worse off when this administration ends next year than when it arrived?

If you look at the condition of our pavement and our bridges, the numbers are going the wrong direction.

If more money is needed for maintaining roads, where will it come from? A new gas tax? More toll roads? Pay per mile program?

One place the money can come from is from making different choices about how to spend the money. When you look at the cost escalation that we’ve had over the last couple of years, you’ve got two choices: finding money or pushing the work out. Pushing the work out would be one way to come up with the money for preservation and maintenance. If you’re not going to do that, then you’re back to all of the resources that the Legislature has at their disposal, but those are tough decisions.

I didn’t hear a specific option. Sounds more like the focus was on a difference in priorities.

You can change what you do or you can change when you do it. But again, back to the two things I don’t do as secretary, I don’t appropriate money. And I don’t set policy.

There are other pots. For example, you could seek to redirect Climate Commitment Act dollars away from culverts and public transit into preservation and maintenance.

We’re going full tilt with the funding we have. We are going as fast as we can on culverts and we’re on track to meet our obligation by 2030. Unless you live in Stehekin, you can get anywhere in Washington from anywhere in Washington in a car. Less than half of the people of Washington have access to public transportation that is frequent and reliable. A quarter of our population doesn’t drive. The investments in public transportation that we’re making are essential services. That’s not something that I would recommend anybody defer.

What about a pay per mile or road usage charge program? The state has studied it but the governor vetoed funding for additional studies.

It is a matter of the timing. The state of Utah has implemented a vehicle miles traveled road user charge. The state of Oregon has too. We’re not on the leading edge of that stuff and I think a lot of us want to watch it unfold. We are well positioned because of the work that the (transportation) commission did. We know how to do it. We know what works and what doesn’t work. We know about what it’s going to cost so stepping back, let somebody else take the lead and being ready to go when it’s time to go. I think that’s what we’re doing.

What will the electric vehicle charging network look like in five years in your view?

I really do think it is going to be primarily a private network where most people will charge their car at home. That’s private. The industry that provides fuel for automobiles today will be retooling to provide energy for automobiles in the future. Commercial fleets are going to be primarily in the yard behind the gate. Where the public sector will engage is seed money to kickstart this stuff. We will put money into charging stations. We may at some point put money into fueling stations for hydrogen. I think in the long term, our role will be filling the gaps. Helping people with that range anxiety thing.

Ferries are a place where worker shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine mandate have had an impact. What is the path for the ferry system to overcome these recurring delays and cancellations?

We are in the midst of a transformation. Up until 2021 when you joined Washington State Ferries you were a seasonal employee for the first three or four or five years until you got enough seniority to have a job year round. And if you wanted to advance at the Washington State Ferries you did all of the training, and all of the testing and all of the licensing on your own time and on your own dime.

We asked for funding for training programs. We asked for funding for year round recruitment. You come back in and ask for it again. Well, you seem to be making the schedule … you don’t need this extra money. Then it broke. And we had to go to the schedule that we’re on. The Legislature and the governor stepped up and they provided funding.

We hired 230 plus people but the net increase was only 60 because of the retirements that continue to happen. We are on the right trajectory, but it was a long time creating the problem. It’s going to take a while to build out of it.

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When do you think the Columbia River Bridge will be done and how much do you think the toll will be to cross, a ballpark guess?

I couldn’t tell you on the toll. We haven’t done the work that would be necessary to say what the range of tolling is. But all that stuff is on the IBR (Interstate Bridge Replacement) website. We are on schedule. And the goal is to be under construction or in the construction phase in 2025.

You speak about resilience in terms of transportation. What do you mean?

Resilience is planning to be able to respond effectively, to whatever comes your way. To be resilient. We need to be safe. Our system needs to be safe. Our system killed 750 people last year on state highways and city roads and counties. That’s 750 too many. Our system is not safe in that regard.

Finally, do you intend to serve until the end of the governor’s term?

I love my job. And I love the people I work with. I would love to keep doing the job. If I’m asked I’ll serve beyond the governor’s term.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.