“Yeah, that’s great and all, but how are you going to pay for it?” Such is the buzz of a rhetorical torpedo which has sunk a thousand good ideas. The problem with this question isn’t its deeper truth—we live in a world of limited time and resources—but in how selectively it is deployed. Obstructionist deficit hawks fire it to block millions spent on transit and public health, yet silently allow policymakers to allocate trillions towards highways and war. It is not a question of whether we can undertake massive projects—especially in the state of Washington—but which to prioritize.
In contrast to my home state of Illinois, Washington shines as a beacon of fiscal stability: it consistently maintains healthy financial reserves, meticulously plans budgets according to comprehensive economic forecasts, and steadfastly controls its assumption of debts. These far-seeing practices have insulated the state from global economic instability, engendering confidence among bond holders and credit rating agencies alike. The state appears to consistently ask and thoroughly answer the question: “how are you going to pay for that?”
With wise frugality guiding the flow of money though Olympia, we can move on from asking “how are you going to pay for that,” to a deeper question: “why are you going to pay for that?” With increased wildfires threatening the state’s economy, the legislative mandate to address climate change, and the state having explicitly acknowledged transportation represents Washington’s largest source of emissions, how would a wise administration distribute funds?
Funding data below the fold:
Experts agree that public transportation improves social equity and reduces emissions more than automobiles—including electric vehicles. These facts, and the aforementioned state priorities, demonstrate why public transportation and rail infrastructure projects warrant a significant budget allocation. Broadly speaking, perhaps 25% to transit expansion for a timely fulfillment of ST3’s democratic mandate, then another 25% to maintaining and improving Washington’s rail network, as WSDOT has recognized the desperate need to upgrade 45% of the state’s short line railroads?
Fortunately, LEAP and the OFM provide access to these figures, so constituents can understand whether the government is financially backing its rhetoric. The following is a breakdown of planned spending on transportation projects by category over the next decade:
Here are the totals by mode:
- Why spend 18 times more money on highways than both transit and rail combined?
- Answer 1: Executives and legislators believe the myth that EVs are an effective solution to the climate crisis.
- Answer 2: Executives and legislators do not care about increasing equity and decarbonizing the economy.
- Answer 3: Executives and legislators care about increasing social equity and decarbonizing the economy, but are unaware that transit plays a key role in accomplishing those goals in the United States.
Regardless of any political expediencies officials may cite, the state is continuing to materially support and expand the transportation system which has significantly contributed to the social and climate crises facing the state and the planet. It is also ignoring voter demands for increased transit options and WSDOT’s recommendations to address the failing rail infrastructure. At best, the funding imbalance reveals ignorance on the best ways to decarbonize transportation and increase equity; at worst, it betrays active neglect of the future.
- Why spend 32 times more money on highway improvements than all freight and passenger rail projects?
- Answer 1: See answer 1 to question 1.
- Answer 2: See answer 2 to question 1.
- Answer 3: Executives and legislators care about increasing social equity and decarbonizing the economy, but are unaware that rail plays a key role in accomplishing those goals in the United States.
Washington State has billions of dollars to spend on transportation infrastructure projects. If California is ready to invest $34 billion into the 171 mile high-speed corridor from Merced and Bakersfield (roughly the distance between Seattle and Portland) , is it beyond reason to expect Olympia to invest $1 billion into upgrading and electrifying the existing medium-speed rail corridor from Seattle to Portland? Such a comparatively small injection of funds would provide more than the $769 million it would take to electrify those tracks, even when calculating with the highest estimates.
As on-time performance has steadily declined to a dismal 47.2% as of 2022 and rail in the Pacific Northwest is somehow unable to withstand rain, perhaps a bit more than 2% of the budget would be warranted. A measly 3% of the highway improvement budget would double rail funding.
The performance metrics and WSDOT itself indicate both passenger and freight rail services are in desperate need of investment, if only to stop medium- and low-speed rail services from grinding to a halt. If we can’t even maintain and electrify medium- and low-speed rail, we’re likely not responsible enough to explore high-speed projects.
- Why spend 2.6 times more money on ferries than public transportation and rail combined?
- Answer 1: Ferries transport cars, and transporting cars is more important than transporting people to executives and legislators.
- Answer 2: Executives and legislators recognize the high fuel consumption of ferries because a government agency purchases and burns the fuel itself.
- Answer 3: Executives and legislators are more concerned about decreasing the government’s emissions than emissions in the state generally.
Ferry fuel consumption represents a drop in the bucket of the state’s overall fuel consumption, even though it comprises the majority of WSDOT’s (take this number with caution, as it’s cited by a company with a financial stake in electrifying ferries). Cynically, the prerogative to decrease the government’s carbon emissions, and ignore the vast majority of emissions statewide, may allow politicians to point their fingers at constituents when the consequences of climate change threaten the public. It is a sly way of quietly abdicating their responsibility to effectively manage the social systems over which they preside.
In search of more questions and answers we’ll dig deeper, scrutinize specific projects behind these sums. Here are a few of the most significant projects from across the categories outlined above:
3 more “whys”:
- Why are there no funds for rail electrification yet $210 million for ferry terminal electrification?
- Answer 1: See answers 1 and 2 to question 3 above.
- Answer 2: See answers 1-3 to question 2 above.
The lowest estimates for electrifying the Seattle to Portland rail corridor come out at $342 million. It could cost half as much to electrify the route between the two most important cities in the Pacific Northwest than to electrify Washington’s ferries. As gasoline consumption in the state is rising once again, would not rail be a wiser investment than ferry electrification? From material, fiscal, and climate perspectives, yes.
- Why does a single stretch of highway warrant 75 times more investment than the region’s most vital rail corridor?
- Answer 1: See answers 1-3 of questions 1 and 2 above.
- Answer 2: It is secretly a rail project, because RCW 47.04.010 defines a highway as: “Every way, lane, road, street, boulevard, and every way or place in the state of Washington open as a matter of right to public vehicular travel both inside and outside the limits of incorporated cities and towns.” If a rail corridor were theoretically open to public vehicles, would it perhaps qualify as a highway under the state’s legal definition thereof?
Though I personally may dream of answer 2, the numbers more broadly demonstrate that none of the state’s executives and legislators possess the creativity and dynamism to formulate and pursue such a bombastic strategy. Based on the plans for additional highway improvements, they seem content to lethargically preside over business as usual, rather than dynamically forge creative paths to a brighter future.
- Why does a bike safety education program warrant a higher budget than a high–speed rail project?
- Answer 1: Executives and legislators have completely abandoned the idea of the state possessing a rail system which meets last century’s standards for electrification.
- Answer 2: Olympia will begin printing its own currency with an exchange rate of 1 to $100 USD, and the funds allocated towards the rail project are meant to be paid in this new currency in order to bolster internal construction and manufacturing capacity.
- Answer 3: The 11 people who died on bicycles last year were the children of high-ranking government officials.
The State of Washington has billions to spend on transportation projects. Transit advocates should not shy away from demanding our elected representatives invest vast sums of money into building more sustainable and equitable transportation: the money is there and the investment is worth it.
Personally speaking, I would go as far as to say we have a duty to demand more. Let obstructionists complain about what they cannot do; let us demand what can be done.