Seattle Times: Governor Pushes Transportation Investment

Source: Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times transportation reporter, Seattle Times, January 10, 2012.  Gov. Chris Gregoire urged state lawmakers to raise $3.6 billion for highway maintenance in her State of the State address Tuesday morning, and passionately argued for additional investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

How to spend $21 billion

THE GOVERNOR’S task force in December published a scenario to show how more than $21 billion could be spent from 2014-2023. The actual dollar figures don’t reflect the long-term debt financing that would be needed for many projects. Major state and local roads, and transit operations, are referred to by the task force as “economic corridors.”

Transit: Operating subsidy for special-needs transportation, $500 million; investments related to economic corridors, $2 billion

Cities and counties: Direct funds for maintenance, $2.8 billion; grants related to economic corridors, $1.3 billion; stormwater and culvert investments, $500 million

State Department of Transportation (highways, ferries, intercity rail): Operations and maintenance, $3 billion; stormwater and culverts, $600 million; improvements to economic corridors, $11 billion

Source: Connecting Washington Task Force

Gov. Chris Gregoire urged state lawmakers to raise $3.6 billion for highway maintenance in her State of the State address Tuesday morning, and passionately argued for additional investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“We have got to step up to proper maintenance of our very valuable transportation system, from highways and bridges to ferries and city streets,” she said.

Ferries in particular are at risk, partly because of insufficient maintenance budgets in recent years, she said. “Without new funding our ferry system will not survive as we know it,” Gregoire said, citing a $1.3 billion shortfall for ferries.

The new money, which lawmakers could approve largely through a series of transportation-related fees, would create 5,500 jobs, she said. Gregoire proposed a $1.50 fee per barrel of oil produced in the state.

“Our oil companies are getting all the profit and leaving us with the bill. We can do better,” she said.

Cities and county governments would have additional options to raise money for road maintenance and for transit, she said.

Her address in Olympia didn’t specifically discuss a potential 2012 statewide ballot measure for highways and ferries — something Gregoire has strongly advocated in recent months. But she said there needs to be a “serious conversation” with voters.

“Educate ourselves and educate the public, and then build a better transportation infrastructure than the other guys,” she said, invoking Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as a proponent of investing in the future. A ballot measure could raise money far beyond the $3.6 billion cited in Tuesday’s speech.

Gregoire cited I-405 east of Seattle, a new 144-car ferry, Interstate 5 at Joint Base Lewis McChord, the I-5 Columbia River Crossing from Vancouver to Portland, Snoqualmie Pass and Highway 167 southeast of Seattle as crucial priorities, especially for trade — $80 billion in cargo passes just through Snoqualmie Pass per year, she said.

Money from a series of gas-tax and car-tab-fee increases last decade is running out, and Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond has warned that roads and ferries will deteriorate without another infusion of cash. The state is grappling with other problems this year, including a budget shortage that will threaten cuts in human services, as well as a rapid increase in tuition at public universities.

Cory Curtis, a spokesman for the governor, said Monday it’s unlikely that two-thirds of lawmakers can be rallied to support a statewide tax increase, because of restrictions under Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053, so that would need to go to the voters. But fees, to be earmarked for maintenance, could be enacted by simple majority, according to Connecting Washington, the governor’s transportation task force.

The 31-member task force recommended a $21 billion option, down from the original $50 billion that officials said would tackle all the state’s known transportation needs.

The Legislature will probably look at an overall strategy worth $10 billion to $15 billion, House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said in an interview posted at Tuesday morning. Gas taxes will be part of that, and there will be a greater emphasis on tolls, she said. Toll revenue in the Puget Sound area would be directed to corridors that were part of a failed 2007 highway ballot measure, she said, but not be applied to Highway 395 in north Spokane, she told TVW.

The Legislature last year almost passed several fees to aid ferries, the State Patrol and other purposes. The bill included a surcharge on new studded tires and would have increased the $25 renewal fee to $40 for a five-year driver’s license. Connecting Washington last month published a new menu to raise up $3.4 billion over 10 years, led by a proposed increase of up to $50 in annual car-tab fees.

How did Washington get in this bind?

Lawmakers passed gas-tax hikes and car-tab fees in the mid-2000s but relied heavily on bond debt to maximize the number of buildable projects — 300 finished to date.

But the gas-tax income to support this leveraged plan ran below predictions, because of the recession, improved miles per gallon, and an end to the 20th-century trend of increasing car travel. More than 90 percent of the tax will be locked up in bond payments by 2015 while some basic work, such as redecking I-5 in Seattle, goes unfunded.

Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, a member of Connecting Washington and the Sound Transit board, said he will suggest a retrofit of the I-5 Snohomish River bridge, to reduce bottlenecks between Everett and Marysville. A second priority is more commuter buses to the Boeing plant and other industries in southwest Everett.

Michael Ennis, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center, said any ballot measure ought to ensure that motorists’ money go entirely to road capacity.

He said lawmakers should reject suggestions to create a statewide funding stream for transit, and he criticized the state’s gas-tax compacts with tribal governments, which receive a discount worth roughly $30 million a year.

The looming campaign over road taxes brings to mind the Roads & Transit proposal that failed in 2007. Then, in 2008, a Sound Transit-only sequel passed, with help from younger Barack Obama voters.

A new east-west “Cross-Base Highway” at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, probably the most disputed piece in Roads & Transit, is not being considered in a 2012 package, Curtis said.

Eyman said in a fundraising message Monday that he will work to defeat a state transportation measure.

“We firmly believe that when voters said no to two cents on a can of pop [in 2010], it should have been obvious to everyone that voters can’t stomach higher taxes, especially now when the economy and family budgets continue to struggle,” he wrote.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or