By The Herald Editorial Board
Infrastructure Week has come to Washington state, largely with broad-based support from business and environmental groups, but with a few grumbles.
Following Congress’ successful adoption in November of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, state Democratic lawmakers last week released the state’s 16-year, $16.8 billion companion to the federal $1 trillion package.
Notable for Snohomish County residents and workers, the Move Ahead Washington package — which after public hearings last week, continues its path through the Legislature with about half of the 60-day session remaining — includes long-sought funding and support for a range of road, transit and other needs.
Among the line-items are $210 million for design and engineering work for replacement of the U.S. 2 trestle; $46 million to replace the Highway 525 bridge in Mukilteo; $31 million for the interchange of I-5 and Highway 529 near Marysville; $30 million for Community Transit to expand the Swift bus rapid transit system with three new lines; $47.5 million for Highway 99 projects in Lynnwood and Everett; $20 million toward a Link light rail station at 164th Street SW and the I-5 interchange; and $12.9 million for a pedestrian bridge over Broadway, connecting Everett Community College’s main campus with its new library and the Washington State University-Everett building.
Statewide, the package allocates $3 billion toward an estimated $8 billion backlog of highway and bridge maintenance and preservation work; $1.1 billion for the state ferry system, including four new hybrid electric ferries; $2.6 billion in new projects including $1 billion for the state’s share of a new I-5 crossing at the Columbia River; and $1.4 billion in funding for existing projects, including work on I-405, Highway 520 and I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass.
Those investments, in particular the $3 billion for maintenance and preservation work, heard support from much of the state’s business community and employers.
“The transportation system is the backbone of our economy,” Neil Strege, vice president of Washington Roundtable, said during a public hearing Thursday before the Senate Transportation Committee. “Washington’s system is in urgent need of investment.”
Importantly, the package also continues to refocus attention on green infrastructure, including transit and its electrification and pedestrian and bicycle projects, making more than $300 million in investments in bike and pedestrian safety projects and programs across the state and another $284 million for public transit. As well, there’s a provision that would require or encourage public transportation systems, including Amtrak and the state ferry system, to let youths under 18 ride free, providing a break to family budgets and building the transit habit in the state’s future commuters.
That focus on bus, rail, bike and pedestrian users — and by the way; can we, please, find a better term than “multi-modal”? — will be of increasing importance as the state continues to confront its responsibilities to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to unhealthy air and climate change.
The package’s investment in transit and the changes it will foster was noted by Ric Ilgenfritz, chief executive of Community Transit, at Thursday’s hearing.
“This really moves the dial,” Ilgenfritz said, especially as CT transitions from chiefly offering north-south service between Everett and Seattle to more regional service as Sound Transit’s Link system moves north from Seattle during the package’s next 16 years, soon to Lynnwood and eventually to Paine Field and Everett.
”We are shifting to focus on developing a more robust network in our county,” he said. “The heart of that network is our bus rapid transit system, and this package makes a significant contribution to advancing what will be a countywide fast, frequent network, connecting communities within Snohomish County and to regional destinations.”
The praise on the environmental side, while significant, wasn’t universal. There remains criticism that the package’s balance still favors highway lanes over greener alternatives. A coalition of climate, health and other groups, 350 Washington, noted that 14 major projects will add highway lanes that — without reducing congestion — will encourage an additional one billion vehicle miles traveled each year, releasing 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, worsening air pollution and contributing to more asthma cases and other respiratory disease.
“Every mile of highway expansion means more children dead in vehicle collisions and a higher number of cardiovascular and preterm births from air pollution,” warned Dr. Annmarie Dooley of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a release. “The exact opposite is true for every extra mile of bus, rolling, and strolling infrastructure. Biking alone is associated with 40 percent reduction in cardiac and cancer deaths. Where to put transportation funds should be an easy decision for legislators.”
Another criticism leveled at Democrats, who, led by their transportation chairs — Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma — assembled the plan, was that little outreach was made to Republicans in either chamber as the package was developed, as has been the custom with previous large-scale packages.
Despite past practice, that sausage-making complaint doesn’t mean Republicans can’t voice concerns now.
While Republicans weren’t faulting the plan for its decision to tap about $2 billion from the general fund or avoiding an increase to the state’s 49.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, there are snipes elsewhere on the revenue side.
The package proposes fee increases to license plates, dealer permits and enhanced driver’s licenses as well as a new tax on fuel exports. Actually, the proposal would reclaim 6 cents of the current gas tax that currently is exempted for exports from refineries across state lines, and will primarily increase gas prices for drivers in Oregon and other Western states. Concerns were raised that the reduced exemption may complicate the state’s talks with Oregon regarding the Columbia River spans for I-5.
And while residents may appreciate they won’t see an increase at gas pumps, as the federal government’s Real ID requirement arrives on May 3, 2023, they will notice a fee increase for an enhanced driver’s license, increasing to $42 for a six-year license, up from $24; and to $56 for an eight-year license, up from $32.
Doubts also have been raised about the ability of the state’s new carbon cap-and-invest program — which will raise revenue from the auction of carbon credits — to provide the amounts promised and allocated to the green infrastructure projects. As well, there is potential for cost increases from the program to be passed down to consumers.
Those are TBDs to consider and there will be opportunity in the time remaining to refine the package, but the plan advanced by Democrats — and by Liias in his first session as transportation chair — succeeds in two respects:
It wisely uses a range of revenue sources, including the federal infrastructure package, the state’s healthy revenue projections, its bonding capacity and reasonable and relatively painless tax and fee increases.
And it uses those funds for a balanced program of investments that begins to address a dire backlog of maintenance and preservation work on roads and bridges, provides funding for needed transportation projects throughout the state and refocuses attention on transit and other climate-friendly and healthier ways of getting to where we’re going.