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News / Northwest

Washington roads chief: Transportation system is on ‘glidepath to failure’

Gov. Jay Inslee voiced similar concerns, saying lawmakers dumped too much money into new projects and too little into preserving existing roads. Legislators counter that spending decisions reflect bipartisan agreement.

By JERRY CORNFIELD, Washington State Standard
Published: May 24, 2023, 6:00am

Washington’s roads czar is warning that the state transportation system is “on a glidepath to failure” after lawmakers put too much money into building new projects and not enough into upkeep.

Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar said this “misalignment” in the latest budget makes it likely the state will continue to fall behind on its highway maintenance responsibilities.

“I have carried the message for my tenure at WSDOT that our system is on a glidepath to failure, and while there have been some improvements on this front, the reality is that we are still on a downward trajectory,” Millar wrote in a May 19 memo to department employees.

The letter went out three days after Gov. Jay Inslee signed the new state transportation budget containing money for agency operations from July 1 through June 30, 2025.

The two-year $13.4 billion budget pays for transportation projects, state ferries, highway maintenance and preservation, court-ordered culvert replacements, and public transit. It also funds the Washington State Patrol and Department of Licensing.

It allots $700 million each year for highway maintenance and preservation, about $300 million less than Millar has estimated is needed.

Good news, bad news

No lawmakers attended the budget signing – which occurred the morning of the special session on overhauling how drug possession is handled by the state’s criminal justice system.

The three-term Democratic governor applauded the “unprecedented” amount of funding for climate-related projects and inclusion of money to replace the Columbia River bridge on Interstate 5.

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Inslee also argued the budget promises projects the state can’t deliver, relying on money it won’t have. He said lawmakers failed to account for declining gas tax revenues and increasing labor and material costs. He first raised such concerns last month.

The funding shortfall for maintenance and preservation, according to the governor, means “things as simple as litter clean-up or as crucial as bridge repairs” won’t get done.

“This is a chronic problem of legislators wanting to have blue ribbon events for new projects instead of maintaining our bridges and maintaining our roads and not being eaten alive by potholes,” he added.

The governor even quoted Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who, in a budget debate on the Senate floor, said the state is “going to be faced with some deep challenges” in the upkeep of the road system in the coming years.

“I will be signing this budget today out of necessity, but no one should interpret my signature as an endorsement,” Inslee said.

An inside view

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and an architect of the budget, called it “a little philosophical divide.”

“He took a shot at us on maintenance and preservation. I get the governor isn’t invested in all of the projects because he lives in one spot of the state,” Liias said. “We have to reflect the needs and wants of a larger constituency to get bipartisan support.”

The final legislation passed 98-0 in the House and 46-3 in the Senate.

“If he can find a way to get 145 votes with his priorities, show it to me,” Liias added.

King, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, seemed amused Monday to learn he had been cited by the governor.

“I sure didn’t hear a whole lot about that when he signed the Move Ahead Washington package,” he said, referring to the $17 billion spending bill passed in 2022. Democrats pushed it through with little input and no votes from GOP lawmakers.

“All four caucuses are working diligently on what we can do from this point forward,” King said. “Promises have been made over the years on projects. Those promises need to be kept as well. We are trying to find a balance between maintenance and preservation and finishing the projects.”

Millar joined the state Department of Transportation as deputy secretary in October 2015. Inslee appointed him secretary in August 2016, succeeding Lynn Peterson who was effectively fired when the Republican-controlled Senate failed to confirm her to the post.

In January, Millar stressed the importance of adequate maintenance and preservation dollars in presentations to the transportation committees in the House and Senate.

Echoing Inslee’s beef with lawmakers over the budget, Millar in his letter also cited concern with the “misalignment between the projects the Legislature would like our agency and industry partners to deliver and what can realistically be completed.”

And, he also expressed frustration with “the unprecedented pace and volume of work that is expected of our agency” and a lack of resources to ensure there is adequate staff to get it all done.

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.