The good, the bad and the ugly of roadwork funding options

Herald staff

Initiative 745 would require state lawmakers to ensure that 90 percent of nearly all transportation dollars spent in Washington are used to build or maintain roads.

There are two basic ways to do it. Shift money already spent on transportation over to road projects, add more to overall transportation spending or some combination of the two.

Here’s what people are saying about those options.

To stay within current transportation spending levels, hitting the 90/10 balance would mean taking between 50 percent and 75 percent of nonroads spending, such as buses and light rail, and moving it to roads, according to state budget office estimates.

Pro: Some argue spending is out of balance, with too much toward transit and not enough toward roads. Local bus systems and Sound Transit account for the bulk of nonroads spending in transportation, nearly $1.2 billion in the current two-year budget, so they are obvious targets for road money.

Bill Eager, a Seattle transportation consultant, said that while more than half the transportation spending in the Puget Sound goes to transit, it accounts for only 3 percent of all trips. More road building would serve more people and relieve congestion, he said.

Con: Critics argue the money shift could gut transit systems already hurt by Initiative 695, which cut a car tax that provided millions of dollars in transit funding. Community Transit has said a 60 percent cut in funding would result in the loss of 63 percent of service.

While transit may account for a small number of total trips, they say it makes a big difference where it counts: carrying workers to and from their jobs during rush hours. And they say adding more pavement won’t solve congestion.

Reality Check: Using transit money for roads isn’t as simple as moving dollars around in a budget. That’s because these dollars are controlled by different governments such as the state and Community Transit.

Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and some of his critics agree it would probably be unconstitutional for the state to simply take tax dollars approved by local voters specifically to pay for transit, which is the case for the state’s bus systems.

To get at the money, lawmakers might have to abolish the laws creating local transit districts and institute some other financing system to pay for transit and roads.

Spending on roads would have to increase between $3.4 billion and $10 billion each year to achieve the balance without reducing transit spending, based on current funding levels.

Pro: Eyman said at least some of the additional money could come from the $600 million collected each year in sales taxes for transportation related to purchases such as cars. The money could be used to finance billions of dollars in bonds.

That financing strategy has been promoted by Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson, and included in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft proposal. Eyman has not supported any tax increases to finance road building, and has said the sales tax revenue could be replaced with state tax surpluses.

Con: If it doesn’t come from new taxes, the money would have to come from elsewhere in government. The sales tax now goes into the state’s general fund, which pays for day-to-day operations of everything from social services to environmental protection.

Lawmakers last year fought bitterly over whether to spend general fund money on transportation. Many Democrats opposed it, saying it would hurt funding for education. Many Republicans supported it, saying it was vital to meet pressing transportation needs in the wake of funding cuts from I-695.

Reality Check: Bond financing can bring in a large lump of money. For example, Carlson advocates using $200 million a year to finance about $4 billion in construction.

But that is taking on more debt and once that money is earmarked for a bond issue it can’t be used to finance another bond issue. For comparison, a homeowner who promises to pay $1,000 a month on a mortgage can’t then use that same money to buy another house the next year and pay for that mortgage.

Washington governments would need to spend at least an additional $85 billion and possibly more than $252 billion on roads over the next 25 years — a common lifespan for a bond — to maintain the 90/10 split. That’s at current spending levels and without cutting nonroads spending, according to calculations based on state budget office statistics.

When asked, Eyman did not cite other specific funding sources. He did express confidence that lawmakers could find a way to achieve the financing balance.

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