Strapped for cash, Washington's transportation projects face uncertain future

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Washington state revenue is up, but the story is still bleak for its transportation projects starved for funds during the pandemic.

By law, Washington’s roads, bridges, and public transit are funded by the people who use them, through bus passes, tolls, and gas taxes, all of which took a colossal hit when Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide shutdown kept commuters home.

A Washington Transportation Committee report released this week shows state tolls fell $5 million or 80% below pre-COVID forecasts while the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will come in $8.9 million short of its past projections.

When the Washington Legislature’s Democratic majority first came out with their transportation budgets in January, there were high hopes the state’s improving budget forecasts would trickle down to the state’s transportation budget. Come February, the four proposals from the Senate Joint Transportation Committee amounted to more than $50 billion.

This month, those four packages have become two, totaling little more than $21 billion combined. This session, the state legislature must pass one.

The first $10.7 billion House plan from state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, sets aside $7.2 billion for the Washington State Department of Transportation, $2.2 billion for debt service, $569 million for the Washington State Patrol, and $364 million for the Department of Licensing. The rest will account for capital expenditures and maintenance. Those numbers are quite a comedown from the $27 billion plan he showcased in February.

The $11.7 billion Senate plan from state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, prioritizes road maintenance, fish culverts, and transportation essentials ahead of several six-year-old projects funded in the Connecting Washington plan, including the Gateway Project which extends 167 from Puyallup to Tacoma and the north end of I-405. Hobbs’ plan is $4 billion short of the $15 billion plan he had in February.

The state’s long list of overdue transportation projects includes a $1.56 billion I-5 carpool lane extension to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a $1.4 billion US 2 trestle in Everett, $3.1 billion in federally-mandated fish culverts, and the ever-evolving cost of repairing or replacing the 104-year-old I-5 Columbia River Bridge.

Some of those costs will be covered by the $1 billion in federal money headed Washington’s way courtesy of Congress. The package divvies up $142.9 million for fish culverts, $600 billion to backfill revenue lost to the pandemic, and $124 million for Puget Sound ferry operations.

Right now, the state’s options for funding transportation this session are passing a contentious cap and trade program, enacting a pay-per-mile fee program, and a low carbon fuels standard which passed the House in February.

Hobbs shared his colleagues’ frustration this week and acknowledged that the proposed budgets do not meet the state’s needs of the moment.

“This is not the budget I wanted,” Hobbs said. “This is the budget we need. We need to keep the lights on. We need to keep preservation and maintenance going. We need to keep the ferries running. We need to keep buses running. This is what we have.”

Hobbs’ plan was unanimously approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday with five amendments, which included more money for electric and hydrogen charging stations. It now goes to the Senate Rules Committee for a Senate floor vote.

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