On Thursday, the Senate Transportation Committee held a ‘work session’ in order to receive public comments on their proposed transportation package. I took the trip down, along with several other STB readers. So first, thanks very much to Jon, Alex, Allison, and Mark for joining me!
There isn’t much actual news. Elected officials from all over the state came on Thursday to ask for highway expansion, and while some of them asked for transit authority, I didn’t hear any of them ask the Senate to start funding transit directly, nor did I hear any testimony at all for passenger rail. There were individuals and organizations saying the package was a non-starter, but they were far too few.
There’s no way to know right now what’s going to happen, but with King County preparing to go to ballot with a Vehicle License Fee or sales tax package to save Metro, they’re no longer reliant on the legislature passing a package. If the package does pass the Senate, it’ll do so with enough Republican support that it may pass the House, so my hope is that the package is killed before it leaves the Senate.
For most people, context completely disappears when an issue drags on this long, so this also seems like a good time for a recap:
The last time the state passed a major transportation funding package was in 2005. That package funded everything from highway expansion to passenger rail improvements. It also started many projects without providing the funding to complete them, a typical strategy that causes the state to look for other funding sources, and brings legislators back to the table for another round later.
Since then, there have been transportation budgets that moved around existing funding, altered projects, or reacted to grants, but little new revenue.
The 2005 package continued a long tradition of ignoring maintenance and older structures, preferring to target those that could be ‘maintained’ by replacing them with larger highways. Unfortunately, this is incentivized for any regularly elected legislative body – it gets them more votes to build a shiny new project and call it ‘congestion relief’ than it does to fix what we have. This is especially true in more conservative areas, where legislators are often elected on a platform of reducing government ‘size’. The least visible, and therefore least defended, needs are those that get cut first.
You can tell the Republicans are in control, because it’s far worse today. While the Democratically controlled House passed a package similar in makeup to that from 2005, the package on the table in the Senate today shifts even farther toward direct highway spending, with far smaller proportions for passenger rail, transit, pedestrian or bicycling needs than even the 2005 package. Ironically, in their familiar refrain for more lanes to ‘move freight’, congestion will only worsen.
The package also does damage to labor, by cutting funds for the state’s apprenticeship program and at the same time allowing lower wages. It exempts transportation projects from paying sales tax, starving education and social services to build more highways. Finally, it diverts stormwater treatment and Superfund cleanup funding from transportation to the general fund, where the barrel tax that funds them can easily be killed later – a handout to oil companies when we can’t even maintain our roads.
To a large extent, this is on us. Our own city council went forward with the SR-99 tunnel rather than fighting for a great opportunity to reduce pollution, help us shift to healthier modes of transport, and get our waterfront back years sooner. Working against highway expansion grew during Roads and Transit, but it faltered after Referendum 1. We’ll need to organize much more to shift the status quo.