Elected leaders from across King County will gather on February 2 to consider legislative strategy and revenue options for the Regional Transportation System Initiative. A Technical Committee of City and County staff have identified $20 billion of regional roads improvements (in 2018 constant dollars) to be funded by 2040. With that analysis in hand, the next step is to consider how to fund this program. Many of the options before the Elected Officials Committee require approval by the Legislature and/or voters.
The RTSI was convened in early 2016 by King County and the Sound Cities Association (King County cities other than Seattle). Staff have met regularly to identify needs and funding options. The scope of the effort encompasses principal and collector arterials and state routes in the County. The RTSI effort does not include freeways and major highways, which are generally state-funded, or transit infrastructure.
The work of the RTSI has its roots in concerns about roads in the unincorporated areas of the County. The 2016 report of the Bridges and Roads Task Force identified a funding gap of $350 million per year for maintenance of bridges and roads. There is a structural gap in funding infrastructure in unincorporated areas because annexations have removed much of the tax base and what remains outside of the cities is small relative to the rural population. Unincorporated King County has 12% of the County’s population, but only 9% of the property tax base and 3% of taxable sales.
That discussion about rural roads and bridges expanded dramatically to encompass many of the roads needs of all the suburban cities. Many communities face heavy demands on their roads due to traffic passing through to other places. It was the task of the technical staff to think systematically about those demands. Bringing the traffic woes of the suburban cities into the conversation meant more local projects to appeal to more voters, but also ballooned the size of the task.
A little less than half the estimated cost, or $9.1 billion, is generally classified as maintenance and preservation. That’s a broad category that includes pavement and replacement of structures, but also enhancements such as ITS, lighting, storm water and non-motorized improvements. The remainder, $10.6 billion, are capacity projects drawn either from PSRC Transportation 2040 models or local comprehensive plan project lists.
These are generally modelled costs at the regional level. At this time, there is no agreed project list to be funded, or specific estimates of associated costs and schedules. Too much uncertainty remains around funding levels and sources to be so precise about individual projects.
An illustrative set of revenue options suggest how this might be funded. The largest opportunity is through user fees including expanded express lanes and VMT charges. Other major options include carbon taxes, increased fuel taxes, paid parking surcharges, and several possible local taxes.
All revenue options have challenges (many identified in this PSRC staff presentation). Several require legislative approval. Expanded user fees, the largest single revenue opportunity, are vaguely defined and will take time to develop and implement. Carbon taxes are tied to much larger policy goals and tradeoffs in the Legislature. Parking surcharges have limited revenue potential in suburbs where most projects are located. A county road levy lift requires both legislative action and voter approval. Transportation impact fees exist in many cities, but are an unstable funding source because they are tied to development. Increases in the MVET are particularly unpopular and unlikely to be approved by voters.
The County or cities could also seek more conventional funding sources such as sales or property tax levies.
The staff work was to inform an Elected Officials Committee developing a strategy for a regional package that could be authorized by the Legislature in 2018. A sixty-day session of the Legislature begins on January 8. With consensus among King County’s elected leaders proving elusive, it is almost certainly too late to have the Legislature consider a request for tax authority this year.
Next month’s meeting of the Elected Officials Committee is only the second to be convened as part of the RTSI process. At this point, the initiative looks unready. Even as the funding request has expanded, there is no project list to share with legislators. The urban needs of Seattle appear poorly represented in a largely suburban and exurban program. Neither does the RTSI consider transit except incidentally (some regional roads are transit routes).
The RTSI process has been unusually invisible. The funding request is too large to proceed very far without a more robust public discussion. $20 billion is proportionately larger than ST3 taxes in King County, and larger even than the $16 billion Connecting Washington program for highways across the state. Both those programs had clearly specified project lists and timelines, which RTSI so far lacks. Work is likely to continue in 2018 to create a fully developed program for possible legislative action in 2019.