In one of the first sentences in the Governor’s policy brief on transportation revenue is the primary reason Olympia stays in a perpetual funding crisis:
Because no maintenance or preservation funds were provided for new lane miles created through these projects, deterioration will set in.
For every administration and for every legislator, the easiest way to pass a package that looks good to their constituents is to partially fund as many new projects as possible, and make them appear as cheap as possible. For a given dollar, it’s more politically viable to spend it on a new project – and be able to say to constituents that their needs are being met – than to spend it just to maintain an old project.
This is simply a reality of psychology, not meant to be an indictment of anyone, but it’s a real problem for legislators who only have so much power or political capital. King Street Station is a great example. The Amtrak Cascades station with the most use in the state is in disrepair, partially restored, and partially funded, after years of work. In the meantime, a barely used Stanwood station has been constructed from scratch – in the district of the chair of Senate Transportation.
Today, many of our highways are in the same boat. In 2003 and 2005, Olympia passed gas tax increases that finished some projects, but largely started new ones. A list of “Unfinished mega projects” in the brief speaks to these partial packages – full of new highway lanes, they were crafted to win public support through big-splash projects on I-405, I-90 and SR-99, largely ignoring the state’s maintenance needs – projects that aren’t exciting to voters.
Now, at the top of the priority list is a sudden need to do maintenance. We have roads and bridges crumbling! Only at the end of a road’s life, when it can be portrayed as a danger, can public opinion turn to new revenue to maintain it. But right below is a list of new highway expansions, with words like “economic development improvements”, “improved mobility” and “congestion relief”. But we know new lanes don’t improve congestion. More roads equal more traffic.
So the state’s task force has proposed “guiding principles” for a package. The middle of the three options (clearly the target, as it’s the only one anyone’s talked about), is $21 billion. Of that, after all that talk about how our maintenance needs are going through the roof, maintenance adds up to less than $6 billion – with $11 billion in “improvements in economic corridors”, also known as wider highways. $2 billion – less than a tenth! – is offered for transit, but given the state’s history of ‘transit funding’, that sounds a lot like vanpools.
Our economic centers don’t have room for wider highways. The task force is trying to do two things – frame low density, low productivity places as “economic corridors” (and say they’d be more productive with bigger highways!), and totally ignore the strong voter message they received when we shot down Roads and Transit in 2007.
If the state wants a transportation package to pass, they’ll have to work with us, not propose doing more of the same. We’re in a maintenance funding hole because of this kind of planning, and we need to get out.