Last week, the Washington State Senate released a bipartisan transportation budget (summary [PDF]) for this biennium. It’s quite unlike the previous budget we saw from House Transportation chair Judy Clibborn: major highway expansion is almost completely missing, and it includes almost no significant new revenue. However, it does hurt Sound Transit and high speed rail.
The transit part
There are two troubling changes to Regional Mobility Grants, state grants for transit capital and operations.
The first is how it’s appropriated: in the past, it’s simply been competitive. If a project is more cost effective, it ranks higher on the list. This makes a lot of sense! The Senate budget added an “agency cap” – any one agency can’t get more than 25% of total projects. This is effectively an attack on Sound Transit – it cut the $7 million grant to the Tacoma Trestle project.
This seems shortsighted on the Senate’s part. The Tacoma Trestle is a 100-year-old, wooden, single-track trestle leading up to Freighthouse Square, the Tacoma station for Sounder commuter rail. It would be replaced with a new concrete double track structure – a structure required not just for Sounder expansion, but also to add Amtrak Cascades trips required for the state to keep its $800 million in federal high speed rail funding, and therefore a state responsibility. It’s also the second highest ranked RMG project in the state. This would be a good time to call your Senator and say “I want high speed rail, don’t cut the Tacoma Trestle!”
The other major issue is a word game in the summary linked above. Normally, once a grant is allocated, the money stays allocated to that project until it’s needed, and sits in a state RMG account. The RMG account accrues interest, which can be applied to other projects later. Not this year: in the Senate version of the budget, the interest is zeroed out, rather than going to the next project on the list. It’s a quiet way of claiming RMGs are “fully funded” but changing what full funding means.
The highway part
On highways, this is an improvement over what we saw in early House proposals, and I believe it’s in large part due to our green House delegation. Folks like Joe Fitzgibbon, Marko Liias, Jessyn Farrell, Jake Fey, Reuven Carlyle, and others have made it clear that they won’t accept new major highway expansion, and that we need to prioritize maintenance and preservation. This budget largely does that.
It does have $82 million for the CRC project. This isn’t enough to trigger federal funding, but it lowers the cost barrier to building the project. As my previous posts laid out, now is the time to put pressure on our legislators and WSDOT to reduce the project to light rail and a seismic retrofit.
Interestingly, it also puts $200 million into the SR-99 tunnel to make up the expected shortfall in toll revenue. The stand Protect Seattle Now and Mayor McGinn took in 2011 clearly made a difference – there hasn’t been a peep about Seattle being “on the hook” for this money, despite posturing from legislators in the past. I think the legislature realizes that actually trying to stick Seattle with the bill for the project’s poor planning would lose them support for future revenue from our voters. You don’t always have to pass a measure to make an impact.
In summary – this is a lot better, but there are two problems:
- The Tacoma Trestle should be funded – Regional Mobility Grants should continue to be based on project merit, not artificially spread over more agencies.
- The Senate shouldn’t take money from the RMG fund, and especially not then say it’s “fully funded”.
If you have a Senator on the Transportation Committee, this would be a good time to tell them how this budget concerns you – and if you have a Rep on House Transportation, give them a thumbs up for not having done these things in their budget.