By Steve Mullin
Statistics and stories about Washington state’s transportation system abound. Seattle has the nation’s ninth worst commute. Insufficient capacity and congestion cost Washington businesses and citizens $600 million a year. The data keeps coming. But we’re all busy and it doesn’t always sink in. Not until you hit a pothole or a cracked bridge deck and your car’s suspension is blown — or worse.
More potholes are coming. In just 10 years, more than half of our state’s roadways will be rated in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Absent action, our transportation corridors will deteriorate due to increased use and insufficient maintenance. The state’s roads and bridges will be plagued by cracks and crumbling pavement. It’s not another statistic. It’s an oncoming crisis.
Of particular concern: Interstate 5, from Marysville, through Seattle to Olympia.
Spot improvements have been made to I-5 over the years, but the pavement condition is deteriorating. There is no comprehensive plan for maintaining and improving this corridor.
I-5 isn’t the only worry. The Washington Roundtable identified at least $3 billion in near-term maintenance, operations and preservation needs statewide. The long-term need is greater.
Maintaining existing transportation infrastructure is common sense. It’s a top legislative priority of a coalition including labor, environmentalists and business; groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Another problem: A number of critical corridor projects are under way across the state, but they aren’t funded to completion. It doesn’t help to build half of a bridge or make improvements that serve only to move bottlenecks a few miles down the road.
Fixing our transportation system is about our economy and quality of life. We must take care of the system we have — the roads and bridges we use every day — and finish the projects already under way.
Think about that data point again: more than half of state road pavement will be in poor condition in 10 years if current funding trends continue. Washington can turn that around with a statewide transportation package this year. If we invest to maintain our roads and finish critical corridor projects, all state pavements could be rated “fair” or better in 10 years. In fact, more than a third could be rated “very good.”
We have to invest. It will help your commute, improve your chances of getting to your child’s practice on time, and better enable your employer to get products to market. It will support the state’s long-term economic vitality.
It would be nice if this could be done with existing tax revenues. It can’t. Available revenues from previous transportation packages are spent. Future proceeds must go to debt service.
Finding more money through efficiencies at the state Department of Transportation would be helpful. But this is a multibillion-dollar need and efficiency alone won’t be enough.
It would also be helpful if the federal government contributed more. However, the feds have their own budget crisis and the federal highway trust fund is nearly insolvent. A federal bailout isn’t coming. This is Washington state’s problem to solve.
The good news is we rallied as a state in 2003 and 2005 to invest in critical transportation projects. We are seeing a positive return on those investments.
One example: Everett’s 41st Street bridge. Crews widened the roadway with an extra merging lane between 41st and U.S. 2. This included 10 miles of new HOV lanes on I-5 from the Boeing Freeway (SR 526) to U.S. 2 (Hewitt Avenue Trestle) and several safety and traffic flow improvements.
That project accomplished four objectives. It improved safety. It smoothed traffic flow and improved neighborhood and business access. It improved environmental protection by funding water quality treatment facilities. It added capacity to improve mobility.
It was a good project, for Everett and the entire I-5 corridor. It got done because Washington lawmakers made the commitment. It wasn’t free. It was a $263 million investment, nearly all of which came from state sources.
Washington needs to invest again. The longer we wait, the greater the need will be and the more expensive the fixes will become. State lawmakers have worked together to make these important decisions in the past. It’s time to do it again. Urge them to take action in Olympia to approve a new statewide transportation investment plan.
Steve Mullin is president of the Washington Roundtable, a public policy organization comprised of the state’s senior business executives.