One of the worst bridges in Washington
The South Park Bridge received a 6 out of 100 in the Federal Highway Administration's safety rating, but no stimulus money went to repairing it. Photo by Jim Carson

This excellent New York Times article sums up what was wrong with the portion of the transportation stimulus bill that was passed back in February:

Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, home to the nation’s worst traffic jams and some of its oldest roads and bridges. But cities and their surrounding regions are getting far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money.

According to an analysis by The New York Times of 5,274 transportation projects approved so far — the most complete look yet at how states plan to spend their stimulus money — the 100 largest metropolitan areas are getting less than half the money from the biggest pot of transportation stimulus money. In many cases, they have lost a tug of war with state lawmakers that urban advocates say could hurt the nation’s economic engine

The graphic, below the fold, specifically points out how Seattle got the short end from Olympia:


As you can see, Kitittas County, population 39,000, received 53% of what King County, population 1.8 million, received from the state. Go Olympia!

38 Replies to “Cities on the Short End of Stimulus”

  1. If the money is going to improving I-90 east of the summit, I’m all for it even though I live in West Seattle.

    1. In 20 something years in Seattle I’ve been on I-90 east of the summit twice. I could definitely live without that.

      1. I agree with Robert. The roads east of the summit on I-90 are some of the worst in the state. Unfortunately, they’re going to need replacement again in 10 years or less, due to high wear from snow plows and tire chains.

        I understand that you don’t drive over there, but there are a lot who do. As long as they’re not building extra lanes, i’m fine with repairing what’s there, at least until there is another viable option for travelling to the eastside.

        The crazy thing is how little of the stimulus is going to infrastructure projects.

      2. I understand that you don’t drive over there, but there are a lot who do.

        This argument is only valid if as many people are driving there as are driving over the urban roads that were passed over. The fact is more people drive on Mercer St, Spokane St viaduct, South Park Bridge,etc. than drive there, and thus it was a worse project.

      3. Um, they’re getting almost 3x as much per capita as Seattle, and they pay less in taxes. Seattle, in fact, pays quite a bit more due to infrastructure improvements, and we still need more.

        I think there is something wrong with this picture.

      4. Like the ferries, those highways over the passes ought to be heavily tolled as they require far more in labor, equipment and maintenance that most “regular” highways

      5. Sounds like you need to get out more. Eastern WA has a ton of cool things to do and see.


        I-90 east of the Summit is abysmal. It might as well be cobblestone. I don’t think I have any teeth left after my two trips over there this past couple of months. That would make sense as to why the disparity exists specifically in Kittitas County.

        Though being a little more on topic, this situation should almost be expected. Because we have X% of the population/GDP, does that mean we have X% of the infrastructure? I might think we would have less than X% of the infrastructure. Feel free to correct me. But in fact I would HOPE we have less than X% of the infrastructure. Isn’t that one of the main benefits to urbanization? You can use the same number of resources to serve a greater number of people. Call it synergy or economies of scale or whathaveyou.

      6. I get out plenty, I’ve been over the mountains twice, and seen all of that I want to see of what’s over there.

        As to the X% bit, that only makes sense if the all the infrastructure is in an comparable state of repair. But we know it isn’t. The South Park Bridge is falling down, the Spokane Street viaduct needs repair, Mercer street is the worst foot-by-foot congestion in the state, etc..

      7. Actually you should get East of the Mountains more … there is some beautiful country over there.

        I-90 is a major economic lifeline both for shipping things out of the area and for shipping them in. I don’t begrudge the money that went for paving it so much as some of the other projects that received stimulus money.

        But someone really needs to come up with the money for replacing the South Park bridge.

      8. This is such an awesomely narrow-minded and revealing comment by an owner of this blog.

        Two trips have shown you all you needed to see of 45,000 sq. mi. that you never feel the need to make another trip. Truly, you are a worldly and well-traveled individual because you fly to Japan or San Francisco or New York so much but never drive to Eastern Washington (a decision which belches many times the number of hydrocarbons into the air than the reverse – good job reducing your footprint). Damn Microsoft yuppie scum.

        You don’t care about general transit and transportation issues nor even the environment, you care about transit and transportation issues for people like you. That’s why despite a brief note and asking for input from commentators about whether you need someone on South King issues, you plowed ahead despite the lack of regular commentators from other subareas.

        Even in a rail world, disproportionate money is spent on rural areas with high-maintenance trackage. I’d bet good money that if I-90 were magically replaced with HSR, that Kittitas County (being a section of the state that experiences severe and stressing weather variation) would see a similar proportion of dollars.

        Do you think your food just magically appears at the farmer’s market (NB: the farms from the Kittitas Valley have a shorter, and therefore less impactful, commute than those in Bellingham) or in the supermarket or something? Once again, damn Microsoft yuppies with their “depth” of lived experience.

        The number one issue with the federal stimulus money was that it was too small, so stuff like regular maintenance work got prioritized over actual investment (because that’s what’s going to need to happen with the South Park Bridge – it needs to be replaced not just repaved). If you can’t get that through your, ultimately, ignorant skulls, then there is no hope for transportation planning in this country.

      9. The value of I-90 to Seattle has nothing to do with whether you or anyone for that matter ever drives over the mountains. I-90 could carry exactly zero passenger cars and it would still be unimaginably valuable. I-90 is a key business and freight corridor that allows us to ship billions of dollars worth of goods that we manufacture locally as well as goods that come through the port. It is also a critical link for getting all agricultural and industrial products from not only eastern washington but much of the western United States into Seattle for post processing or to the Port for international trade. The number of local jobs that are dependent on that transportation link numbers in the hundreds of thousands and the economic value ranges in the billions. It is ridiculous to suggest that the reason we are investing in I-90 is for the benefit of the people of Kittitas county. They do happen to benefit from I-90, but they are far from the only ones who do. Seattle gets a lot more benefit from I-90 than Kittitas county does.

        Inter-regional transportation systems are the foundation of every city’s economy. Those who imagine that intra-regional commuters are the sole or even the primary purpose of a transportation system should pick up a book on urban and regional economics.

    2. It’s not so much that I’m against spending money to improve road surfaces on the major east-west interstate. It’s just that as important as that corridor is the same money would help far more people and generate more economic activity in the Seattle metropolitan area.

      But really, as bad as the rural-urban split is, the real problem is the size of the pie. $16 billion for the whole country? It should have been ten times that, with the other 90% deducted from tax cuts in the stimulus package.

      Given the state of the economy, another stimulus is probably a good idea. (The original one was too small by half.) The politics will be hard given concern over deficits, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for transit advocates to start lobbying for transit-heavy stimulus now.

    1. I know, what did they do? Did the government say, “You got tons of money already for the Big Dig. You’re good for awhile.”

    2. just got back from boston

      there are huge signs on I-95 / Rte 128 north and west of the city celebrating the widening / repaving work being done on that highway. the city could have used more of the money but keep in mind that the physical (land) size of the counties / municipalities is quite different than it is out here. even in the sprawlburbia of the metro-west or whatever it’s called these days, as well as the lower parts of the north shore, density is probably 5-10x what it is out here.

      so, in short, don’t feel too bad for boston – the metropolitan area there did quite fine, and is not suffering in such a backwards way like the seattle area. instead, feel a great burning bubbling rage at the total screwing-over the seattle area got by folks in oly and in the eastern portions of the state. i still can’t wrap my mind around exactly how all this shook out – but if they legalized and taxed whatever was being smoked in olympia when it all went down, we’d be out of our budget hole in no time.

      1. by “out here” i mean the density of the rural/suburban communities that got a huge % of the stimulus funding – king county’s density, obviously, is a slightly different story.

  2. I’ve about had it with the disparity in spending between Eastern WA and Western WA. I’m convinced that as long as it is left to the politicians to allocate funding there is no chance that this disparity will ever be corrected.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to correct this problem is to institute some form of sub-area equity on the state level – say something like, “95% of all transportation related taxes and fees raised in a given county must be spent in that same county.” Have the law automatically sunset after 10 years unless extended by the voters and let’s see what happens.

    Eastern WA would actually vote for such a thing as they are totally convinced that they subsidize infrastructure on the west side of the State, when in reality the opposite is true.

    Per I-90 east of the summit being a State priority – give me a break! I’ll grant that it is rough, but it isn’t that rough, and it certainly isn’t an eminent safety issue like some of the bridges on the west side. And, yes, I spend a fair amount of time on that road and I know it well. What do I do to deal with it? I travel a little faster so I can stay in the left lane as much as possible where the road is nice and smooth. Problem solved.

    The other annoying thing is that a lot of road damage in Eastern WA is caused by studs – yet they continuously fight both stud bans and stud fees. I’d have no trouble with allowing studs if every stud user paid a yearly fee to road maintenance to cover their damage, but somehow that is viewed as “unfair”.

    What a crazy state.

    1. The same Eastern Washington where its most populous three counties received similar proportions of stimulus money as King? Where one county received no stimulus money whatsoever?

      This isn’t an east/west issue or even urban/rural (so much), as this is a “major east-west through highways get lots of money” issue.

      Also please say you begrudge a poor as dirt county like Pend Oreille stimulus money because high-five for that.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I wonder, though, if griping about the per capita disparity in resource allocation isn’t a bit misguided. I mean, the fact is that we are more efficient in the city. What level of funding would we need to reach an apparently “equitable” share of this money?

    Is it inherently inequitable to spend money in a way that gives a per capita edge to rural areas?

    If you follow the logic of some of the comments, it’s never right to fund rural projects because spending in cities always yields a higher return.

    I agree that overall, the tilt has to be towards urban areas and cities…no doubt about that. But we’re dealing with a transportation infrastructure that is structurally designed to give this advantage to rural areas. How do we get around that?

    Just some thoughts and conversation starters…

    1. I would add that the per capita statistic is a bit of a red herring. Once that is multiplied out, King County receives the most money. Of course this article fails to have a map with the actual dollar amount per county.

      I understand why – simply to quell the “why do Seattle-ites get everything” argument. I don’t mind the argument on either side, but it’s erroneous to say that those in other counties are receiving so much more than here.

      Lastly, those with less population should still have good roads; it’s going to cost more per person, but that doesn’t mean they deserve any less. Seems equitable to me.

      1. Lastly, those with less population should still have good roads; it’s going to cost more per person, but that doesn’t mean they deserve any less. Seems equitable to me.

        That really makes no sense to me. If I move out to the middle of no where I still deserve good roads why? Because it’s my god given right? Cost ot the taxpayer be damned?

        Seriously? If that’s the best you can come up with you need to go back to thinking about the problem.

  4. Remember that the Port of Seattle would be at a major disadvantage without I-90. And certainly traffic to the summit is dominated by drivers from the Puget Sound region. So it’s not like this money on I-90 isn’t helping Puget Sound as much or more that eastern Washington.

    1. Well Eastern Washington benefits too … all of those agricultural products have to get shipped to international markets somehow. Not to mention the big local market is central Puget Sound.

      1. Sure but just on pure numbers there are far more people this side of the mountains that are reaping the benefits. Bulk goods like wheat don’t use I-90. They truck to local grain elevators where it is put on rail cars (largely thanks to WSDOT) or it is shipped by barge down the Columbia River. Sure horse owners in Duval benefit from hay and straw trucked over I-90 but there’s at least as much economic benefit to the distributors, stables, etc. this side as there is to the farmers to the east. Same for other crops. Grapes come over and are turned into wine at Chateau St. Micheal. Even the wine coming from the Yakima region is sold here or distributed and shipped through Seattle. And it really is the truck traffic that tears up the road. They are heavy and law requires them to chain up long before they require it for cars.

  5. The issue of how much money was spent on which side of the mountains kind of misses the point. The point is that the legislature took the state share of stimulus money, went behind closed doors with almost no public input and wasted too much of it on backfilling nickel and TPA highway projects on which the state was behind schedule because of higher costs and less than projected gas tax revenue.

    About 2/3 of the money did go to basic road repair projects, which is a good thing because we do need to do a better job of maintaining what we have (including I-90 east of the mountains). Those maintenance projects are as shovel ready as you can get and they produce a lot of instant jobs. That said, it was absurd for the state to blow $35 million on an interchange at the Yakima Valley mall and a lot of other pork barrel TPA projects when it could have spent that money on transit capital around the state, funded a variety of bike/ped projects that were shovel ready and fixed crumbling infrastructure in the Seattle area such as the South Park bridge, Spokane Street Viaduct and, yes, the Mercer Mess. The shunning of transit by state legislators was the biggest outrage (although not at all surprising).

    See this report for more:

    1. “Behind closed doors” was the only way to go if you wanted to see any of this money. Talk is cheap and the short end of the stick is what we’d have ended up with if this followed the usual piss and moan, him and haw method. The reason the South Park Bridge didn’t get any funding is because after years (decades?) of the usual jaw boning there was no plan that was shovel ready. In fact there would probably be three years of study if somehow the money suddenly materialized to build something.

      Other projects like Mercer aren’t eligible. We’ve been through this before. It’s a City project. When cities incorporate they take control of a big chunk of the tax revenue. In return they have to take responsibility for much of the infrastructure. Seattle can’t take local sales tax and property tax and still expect the State to take care of city streets. There are stimulus funds that will go to cities and Seattle needs to make sure they muzzle up to the trough and get their fair share.

      As far as transit capital there are restrictions on creating jobs and creating them now. Placing a bus order that is a year or more out doesn’t cut it. Buying rail cars from Europe or Asian really doesn’t cut it. Then you’ve got the issue of who’s going to fund the increased operational cost of added equipment. Hey, great, we’ve got a hundred new buses; oh, wait, we’re cutting service… just park it over there :-( And you can’t just take the money and use it to pay off orders already on the books because that isn’t creating any new jobs.

      The stimulus really was a case of make hay when the sun shines. The shovel ready jobs were mostly roads because, well that’s what the State does. Who else is going to do it? We also got some needed rail funding because those studies and projects were done and in good order thanks to years of work by WSDOT. While we currently have a backlog of expansion and improvement plans waiting on funding this should be a wake up call to legislators that when funds are again available long term planning for rail improvements need to get back on track.

      1. Lots of inaccuracies in what you said there, but I’ll just pick on 2.

        1. There’s no federal rule that says that the stimulus money has to go to state projects and not local projects. That’s just a decision that state policymakers (Clibborn and Haugen) made. That’s what “aren’t eligible” means in this case.

        2. The state doesn’t lose any share of local tax revenue when cities incorporate, except in very specific circumstances, like annexation of large unincorporated areas, and even then it is only temporary. There is a revenue shift from counties to cities when incorporation or annexation happens, but it’s one that the counties are universally in favor of because it decreases their costs more than it decreases their revenues. The state’s share of sales and property atx revenue is the same in cities and in unincorporated county territory.

      2. I didn’t say the State loses tax revenue. I said “When cities incorporate they take control of a big chunk of the tax revenue. In return they have to take responsibility for much of the infrastructure.”

        The State has established the policy of funding State road projects like the viaduct and leaving projects like Mercer up to the City. Just because the Stimulus rules don’t preclude the use on local projects is no reason for the State legislature to change their policy.

  6. Eastern WA is enormously important to the economy of this entire state. The roads they rely on to transport goods, commute, and attract tourism badly need to be replaced and the fact is that rural areas don’t have the tax base to pay for their infrastructure alone. This has always been the case.

    You don’t want all that stimulus money going to Eastern WA but you also don’t want our tax money going over there. So what do you suggest? We let their infrastructure crumble, along with their economy? Washington State is one economy, we’re all in the same boat, and we don’t need someone who governs only what s/he can see from the top of the capital building.

    I also hope I need not remind you that I-90 runs far beyond Seattle to Spokane – it goes allllll the way to Boston. Just because YOU don’t cross the mountains to the other half of this state doesn’t mean billions of dollars worth of goods doesn’t…

    1. I spend a lot of time on the other side of the State — and I do mean A LOT. And I do believe in one Washington, but at some point the leaders of this State need to step back and be realistic.

      Yes, the agricultural economy of Easter WA is significant, but it just isn’t that significant in the larger statewide picture. Roughly speaking, King County by itself represents 30% of the State’s population, 40% of the State’s jobs, and 50% of the State’s tax base. Add in Pierce and Snohomish Counties and Pugetopolis clearly represents the bulk of this State’s economy no matter how you decide to dice the numbers.

      If you want to take care of this State’s economy, you really need to take Pugetopolis first.

      But on top of that, if you really care about supporting Eastern WA ag-business, then you really should be supporting investment in Western WA and not Eastern WA. Half the cost of shipping a product from Eastern WA to ship-deck is incurred between the pass and the ship. If you want to reduce shipping costs for Eastern WA, then the easiest way to do it is by working on the 50% of the cost that is incurred on this side of the State.

      Think of it this way – repaving I-90 east of the summit does exactly zero to reduce shipping costs for Eastern WA, but investing in freight mobility and portside facilities on this side of the State surely would reduce shipping costs.

      1. “Exactly zero” – hyperbolize much? Increased wear and tear on vehicles = increased shipping costs. Yes, that makes your argument more complex but whatever, score those debating points.

      2. Your argument seems to assume that only projects that occur within the borders of the Puget Sound metro region benefit the region. This is not the case. The region needs its external transportation links. Even if there was not a single freeway exit and not a single living soul in Eastern Washington, Seattle would still pay for and benefit from having an interstate connection to the entire rest of the country. Stop thinking about interstates as benefiting the places in between. Their primary benefit is to connect metro regions to each other.

        You do make a good point however about spending money on improving freight mobility in the west, which is the major bottleneck. Of course, one of the reasons it’s a bottleneck is because SOV commuters keep gumming up the transportation system that should be focused on economic development rather than subsidizing a gratuitous suburban lifestyle.

  7. The New York Times story raises an important fact: when federal transportation funds are spent by state legislators, there’s usually a big rural windfall at the expense of urban areas. And the decisions are made behind closed doors with zero accountability. (As in, who actually decided where the money goes? And what were the trade-offs? Votes for other pet bills?)

    It happens every two years in Olympia when legislators decide how to spend federal funds that come to the state. One reason: the current legislature is only interested in “state” roads owned an operated by the state DOT. They have shown little interest in city streets (like Mercer) or county roads (like South Park) or transit that is not operated by the state (everything but ferries.) Sure, they talk, but when the rubber meets the roads, the legislature uses it for state roads, a disproportionate share of which are outside urban areas.

    The Obama administration wants to change that. That’s one big reason why the reauthorization of federal transportation policies by Congress was delayed 18 months: to allow the administration time to lay the groundwork for true reform. The focus: let regions decide how to spend more of the federal funds in transparent ways instead of earmarking behind closed doors by legislators in state capitols. And require the regions to spend the funds on projects with the most merit, ending the silos that restrict the lion’s share of federal funds to road spending, and ending the closed door horsetrading that characterizes decisions made a state capitols.

    It is likely to happen.

    I don’t agree that spending on I-90 in Kittitas County doesn’t benefit Seattle and King County – it is a huge connector for both. And it isn’t just about whether you use it, it is also about where you get food and other goods (like Wine!), or you realize other more intangible benefits.

    The point of stimulus was never to equalize spending in turfy ways anyway. It was to jump start the economy in really tough times. Those Kittitas County construction jobs may well be held by people who live in Seattle. The contractors who perform the jobs generally have ties to the urban region and King County. The lift in tax receipts from the churn or the stimulus funds helps the entire state.

    The other thing I would point out is this: although the funds the NY Times looked at could be spent on any type of transportation improvement – state capitols almost always decide to spend them on roads the state owns, not transit, even though transit was eligible. But the true accounting and viable compare will come only when funds that can only be spent on transit are added to the calculation, That’s when the urban tally will go up substantially, especially in a city like New York, which, because of transit’s operating characteristics there, received a huge windfall of stimulus funds that rural place didn’t get any of.

  8. I’d also like to point out that the distribution of funds is via a democratically elected process vs a highway czar.

    So our legislators obviously think that the distribution of the funds is in some way fair. If you/we don’t like it we can try to vote them out of office, and change the allocation of representatives such that urban areas are better represented. I think that is highly unlikely to happen.

  9. If you want real reform, why not take your case to Olympia? Puget Sound has half the population of the state, and as such it has half the state legislators, including the Speaker of the House. Log roll with a couple other districts on the I-5 corridor and you have a solid majority. Our real problem is not that Eastern Washington legislators keep sticking it to seattle, it’s that our own legislators are letting them get away with it. Furthermore, nearly all the eastern washington representatives are Republicans, which are a tiny minority in the state legislature. How could they be wielding so much power? The reality is that it is our own delegation that is asleep at the wheel or is more concerned about social issues than about transportation or economic development.

    Take a look at the committee assignments in the house transportation committee (link). Of the 29 members, only 11 are from King, Pierce or Shohomish counties (38%), of those 3 are from rural parts of those counties, leaving only 27% of the members of the key committee from urban puget sound, despite the fact that urban puget sound represents 50% of the population. Even more maddening, only one, ONE, of the 29 members of the house transportation committee is from Seattle. That means Seattle, whose delegation makes up 12% of the state house, holds only 3% of the seats on the transportation committee.

    THAT is why Seattle gets screwed in olympia. It’s because OUR OWN legislators DON’T CARE about transportation. Where are the Seattle legislators? What are they spending their time on? It is not “Olympia’s” fault, it’s our fault. You want reform, call your legislators here in Seattle and tell them that if they don’t make transportation a priority and get themselves on the transportation committee, you will be voting for someone else.

    We actually can make that threat now thanks to the top-two primary. Every Seattle legislative race in 2010 will likely be between 2 democrats, meaning we could actually have a real choice for once and can actually start holding their feet to the fire on transportation.

  10. Having covered this 20/40/40 business for a while, I’ve grown really weary of this impulse to keep score on which county got what. There’s plenty of other stuff to be outraged about in whole stimulus process:

    * Too little spent on transportation and infrastructure
    * Too much of that spent on roads, not rail and transit
    * Of the road money, too much spent on new capacity, and not enough on fixing what we already have.

    If they had hacked I-405 expansion to fund rural bus service or repair farm roads, I would have been cool with that. If they had stiffed Metro but funded Whatcom transit to the rafters, that would be a bummer for me but I could respect it. There are enough systematic problems that we don’t have to be at each other’s throats over resources.

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