By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
If it were up to him, Sen. Marko Liias would focus solely on traffic safety in the 2024 legislative session. But as the cost of highway projects and fish passages has skyrocketed, next year’s transportation agenda has been rewritten in recent months, forcing lawmakers to take a second look at their budgets and timelines for delivering long-promised projects.
“There’s some stuff we have to talk about, which is how to land the plane, so to speak, on these big projects,” said Liias, D-Edmonds, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Less than two years ago, the Legislature passed a momentous, $17 billion transportation funding measure. It was billed as a means to finally deliver on highway megaprojects while improving transit across the state. Now, lawmakers are forced to watch as the ambitions the package contained dwindle as costs rise.
Safety will still be a topic of conversation when the session begins Jan. 8. The state is on pace to match or even exceed last year’s 740 traffic deaths, a number that itself was a more than 30-year high.
Liias is freshly returned from Finland, where he and a group of state officials visited to learn more about that country’s efforts to eliminate traffic deaths. Legislators are likely to again take up the question of a lower blood alcohol limit and expanded enforcement.
Still, some of the oxygen for safety was taken out of the room when lawmakers received a series of bad reports regarding the state’s capital program. The cost to convert three ferries to hybrid-electric is now $30 million more than budgeted. The price for work on I-405 to expand express lanes and lay the groundwork for a new bus stop came in $234 million more than expected. Bids for replacing the 520 bridge over Portage Bay in Seattle were more than $500 million over the expected cost.
And the biggest blow came when the state Department of Transportation revised upward its estimates by nearly $4 billion to replace hundreds of culverts — or large pipes — beneath state roads to improve salmon passage, as mandated by a federal court.
“It was just one shock after the next,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia.
Because the cost for the projects is spread out over years, Liias said lawmakers can address the issue over more than just one legislative session. But it will be important to begin a conversation about how to reshuffle resources, by moving dollars around in the budget or delaying other projects — or some of both.
“How do we reshuffle, restructure and set more realistic expectations about what we can deliver on the rest of the program?” he asked. “So there’s the stuff that I wasn’t planning to do and then stuff that we have to do in terms of the moral imperative at the moment of traffic safety.”
Chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said his committee will scrutinize the cost overruns. The contract for 520 has not yet been awarded and Fey said he has reservations of writing a check that’s 70% higher than what the state expected. At the same time, delaying runs the risk of further increasing the total cost.
“I’m not seeing Prince Charming or anybody else coming forward with a bunch of money solving the problem for us this session,” he said. “I think we have to look at what is out in front of us and make some decisions about how far we can go into each realm, whether it’s ferries, culverts or projects.”
The state’s transportation budget, which relies heavily on a 49-cent gas tax, is separate from the general fund. In 2022, however, budget writers approved a $2 billion transfer from the general fund to the transportation budget.
Republicans are interested in doing more of that. Barkis said he will propose diverting sales tax from cars and trucks, that normally go into the general fund, to the transportation budget, as he’s unsuccessfully pushed in the past.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, “From my standpoint, I think we need to have some very good conversations with the operating budget and I think we can show them that if we have a good transportation system, it’s good for the operating budget.”
But Democrats have been hesitant to lower the wall between the two, largely because that would mean transportation would compete for dollars directly with social programs and education.
One thing that’s unlikely to happen this coming year: new taxes. Taxes and the cost of gas in Washington are already hot issues and 2024 is an election year. Liias said whatever solution they come up with will be bipartisan, which almost certainly rules out new gas taxes.
Lawmakers are likely to look to money generated from the state’s auction of carbon credits, especially for improving fish culverts. But the wrinkle there is an initiative to repeal the auction appears headed to the ballot.
“That’s going to be fraught with controversy,” said Barkis.
On safety, lawmakers are likely to consider lowering the maximum blood alcohol content for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%. It’s a change backed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and one considered during the 2023 legislative session. It failed to advance, in part due to concerns from the hospitality industry.
Amy Freedheim, head of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office felony traffic unit, said it would be an important change because, at 0.08%, the “vast majority” of people show significant impairment.
With 0.05%, “I think the studies show that people will be better at self-regulating, that they will say, ‘Oh, I need a designated driver,’” she said. “Or they’ll say, ‘I better stay home if I’m gonna drink’ or they will drink less and that will make our roads safer.”
Legislators are also likely to push for new ways to expand enforcement, through more hiring incentives for the Washington State Patrol or by increasing use of automated traffic cameras. The city of Seattle, for example, is lobbying for a change away from the current requirement that only police may review camera tickets.
Liias said his committee will explore ways to further incentivize safer road designs.
Lingering in the background is the state of Washington’s roads. Transportation Secretary Roger Millar has warned Washington is on a “glidepath to failure” when it comes to maintenance and preservation. From 1995 to 2021, as spending on new projects increased by more than 70%, maintenance and preservation increased by just 11%.
Fey said he’s likely to try to “squeeze” in more money for maintenance and preservation. Barkis said he thinks his sales tax proposal would go a long way to closing the gap.
Liias, meanwhile, was less concerned. While he acknowledged more needs to be done, he argued the state is not in a crisis.
“Every DOT director everywhere in the world says there’s a backlog,” he said.