Comment: Passing I-2117 would blast hole in transportation fixes

The measure would cut $5.4 billion in funding from work underway on roads, ferries and more.

By Jake Fey and Marko Liias / For The Herald

What would it mean for our state’s economy, our commutes and our communities if we punched an I-90-sized hole in our state’s already stretched transportation funding plan?

That’s a question Washingtonians should ask themselves as they consider their vote on Initiative 2117, which will be on our ballots this fall.

As transportation policymakers and commuters here in Washington, we feel a responsibility to sound the alarm. If passed, I-2117 would repeal one of our state’s key funding sources for our overall transportation plan and put transit service, ferries and road and bridge projects across Washington at risk of delay or even cancellation.

We worked to pass Move Ahead Washington with the support of the business and labor communities, port officials, local elected officials and transit advocates.

Look around our state, and you’ll see some of these projects through Move Ahead Washington underway. Our public investments have put shovels in the ground and skilled Washington workers to work with good family-wage jobs to make these road projects a reality.

But even with these major investments, our state still faces a serious transportation funding gap that could risk delaying or canceling these projects; and that’s before we even get to the potential consequences of I-2117.

First, let’s start with the existing challenges facing our transportation system.

The costs for completing key projects on I-405 and Highway 520 have escalated nearly $1 billion due to the rising costs of labor, materials and equipment. And we’re still waiting for bids on new ferries and an updated budget for the new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.

There’s more: We have an annual backlog of more than $1 billion for keeping our bridges in good repair, maintaining our state highways, for essential services like fixing potholes and crumbling asphalt.

That delta could get a lot bigger as our state’s needs grow: replacing salmon-blocking culverts around the state, as we have a legal responsibility to do, will cost as much as $4 billion more than originally estimated.

And that’s before the consequences of 2117.

I-2117 would remove $5.4 billion of funding for the Move Ahead Washington plan. This $17 billion plan, passed in 2022, is our 16-year transportation roadmap addressing congestion, safety and freight mobility. The historic package includes funding to replace the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River; finish the North Spokane Corridor freeway that will connect Highway 395 to I-90; finish the 520 Bridge in Seattle; and the Gateway freight project connecting Highways 509 and 167 to our ports in Pierce and King counties to help move freight and reduce congestion. It also included a new funding source, the Climate Commitment Act, that funded mobility projects across the state including transit service in every county, our Safe Routes to Schools programs, no-fare transit passes for youth, and pedestrian safety programs.

With our state’s aging ferry system in a state of crisis, I-2117 would also take away the source of one-quarter to one-third of the funding in place for new ferries for our fleet; at a time when some boats are nearly 60 years old.

Here’s the reality: Before I-2117 we were facing a $5 billion to $6 billion challenge to finish projects, maintain our roads and fulfill our obligation to remove salmon-blocking culverts. If passed, I-2117 doubles that problem. I-2117 exacerbates an already critical funding gap for our state’s transportation future. Whether you’re a transit rider, commuter, freight operator or employer who needs your workers to get around our state, know this: When it comes to funding our transportation future in Washington, there is no Plan B.

A safe, reliable and connected transportation system reduces commute times, makes us safer, and powers our economy. Rolling back investments in road projects and highway preservation is short-sighted and bad policy. Sitting in traffic on clogged roads and highways isn’t just bad for our blood pressure and quality of life; it’s bad for our economy.

If passed, I-2117 means we’d need to start over with our plan. It means some projects will be delayed, some will be canceled for the time being, transit service would be reduced and new sources of funding for our transportation system would need to be found. As our state grows, as we continue to recover from the challenges of the pandemic and inflation, and as we work to make Washington an even better place to live, work and innovate, that’s a cost Washington state just can’t afford.

State Sen. Marko Liias. D-Everett, has represented the 21st Legislative District since 2008 and is chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, has represented the 27th Legislative District since 2013 and is chair of the House Transportation Committee.

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