Westbound cars merge from Highway 204 and 20th Street SE onto the U.S. 2 trestle during the morning commute in March 2017, in Lake Stevens. (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Westbound cars merge from Highway 204 and 20th Street SE onto the U.S. 2 trestle during the morning commute in March 2017, in Lake Stevens. (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Transportation spending now will save money later

A backlog of maintenance work and projects already is costing us billions. We just don’t notice it.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The reluctance to own up to the real costs of transportation in Washington state — reluctance by state lawmakers and officials on down to the driver behind the wheel — are only adding to a backlog of maintenance, project delays and an ever-increasing bill of hidden costs.

When you add up the less visible costs of neglect and delay, says Roger Millar, the state’s transportation secretary, that under-investment is costing the residents and businesses of Washington state about $25 billion a year. Those costs are hidden, but everybody’s still paying, he said.

“That’s money that people are paying. They’re not paying it as a gas tax; they’re paying it in insurance rates; they’re paying it in car repairs; they’re paying it in inefficient business,” and in time lost sitting in traffic congestion, Miller said in a recent conversation with the editorial board.

And they’re paying it in the loss each year of some 540 lives and thousands of injuries in traffic accidents in which road condition and other safety issues are a contributing cause.

That $25 billion — were it reflected in the gas tax — would add up to $7.88 a gallon, Millar said.

What would begin to ease those hidden costs — and what state lawmakers are considering now during talks in preparing either for a special session this year or the regular session next year — are a new package of investments and the revenue to support them.

As the 50-year-old TV ad for an oil filter advised, comparing a $4 filter to a $200 engine job (this was 1972, after all): “You can pay me now; or pay me later.”

Those investments, Miller said, could provide “a net savings for Washington families and business by reducing the carnage, reducing the congestion, reducing the costs of car repairs and reducing our impact on the climate.”

The state’s transportation infrastructure, Millar estimated is worth about $200 billion. The state should be spending about $2 billion a year on maintenance and preservation, but currently half of that is being spent.

“We’re not doing any preservation work on any highway where the speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less,” he said.

The state Department of Transportation compiled a list in September, reporting that 167 bridges in the state were in “poor” condition, including eight in Snohomish County. Only 59 bridges, about a third of that list, currently have the funding for needed work. Four of the bridges in poor condition in Snohomish County — two on U.S. 2 and two on Highway 203 — need work to fix deteriorated concrete decks; work that is not currently funded.

Prior to the Legislature’s session last year, a budget year, the DOT’s Capital Improvement and Preservation Program pointed to a backlog of preservation work of about $690 million a year.

To address that backlog, the transportation agency prepared a list of “State of Good Repair” needs, totaling $10 billion for the next ten years of specific projects, capital investments and maintenance and preservation work, including $1.78 billion for bridges; $1.4 billion for pavement work; another $860 million in other highway work; $1.075 billion for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River; $830 million for the U.S. 2 trestle and a combined $2.675 billion for state ferries and terminals.

What it got last year in the budget for 2021-23, state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, told the Spokesman Review last week, was a Band-Aid.

“It keeps the lights on but doesn’t make any progress on these needs,” Riccelli said.

A major hurdle in addressing those needs have been both chronic and acute hits to transportation revenues. The chronic drag has been years of declining revenue from the state’s gas tax. Washington, at 49.4 cents a gallon, has the sixth’s highest gas tax in the nation, but the revenue it provides has been shrinking as fuel-efficiency has improved and driving habits change. Those changes have been further accelerated during the pandemic as more worked from home and fewer miles were driven. Depending on how long the economic impacts of the pandemic linger, the hit to the gas tax over the next ten years could be $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

Those economic realities add to the job for lawmakers. In addition to having to identify what projects and maintenance funding will be included in a transportation package, state lawmakers also will have to identify adequate and sustainable sources of revenue.

Comparably speaking, it’s been easier for the Legislature to increase gas taxes, although its last increase — 11.9 cents a gallon for 2015’s Connecting Washington — used tenths of a cent to avoid hitting 50 cents a gallon for the sake of appearance.

Tougher conversations — and a sales job to state taxpayers — will be necessary to assemble a new revenue package. Some increase to the gas tax may be necessary, but lawmakers of both parties may have to make concessions on proposals to get buy-in from the other. Democrats need to give serious consideration to diverting sales tax revenue from the sale of vehicles from the general fund to the transportation budget. Republicans, likewise, will need to consider a phased-in road-usage fee — for which the state already has conducted a pilot project — that would charge drivers for miles traveled, in lieu of the gas tax; especially important as the percentage of electric vehicles on the road increases.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, said last week that talks have been ongoing in recent weeks among representatives for both parties in the Senate and House. There’s significant agreement, he said, on what to include, if not necessarily agreement on when to act on a package. Some want to see a special session this month or next; others are content to wait for the regular session that begins in January.

A session in November and December gets the work done now and avoids lawmakers having to talk about taxes in a legislative election year. But Hobbs pointed out that regardless of when action is taken, the work of hammering out a deal is being completed now.

All the same, it would be good for the Legislature to get this out of the way and on the books.

Among those urging action as soon as possible is the Washington Roundtable, a policy organization that represents state businesses and employers.

There’s a shared responsibility for both parties, said its president and vice president, Steve Mullin and Neil Strege, in a recent conversation with the editorial board.

“There’s sentiment that this package needs to be bipartisan and you need to have Republican participation to get it done,” Strege said. “Voting for taxes is not the Republicans’ favorite thing to do but they have come to the table before in recent transportation packages.”

The Roundtable is encouraging Republican lawmakers to get on board with a package. At the same time, the organization is urging Democrats to develop workable proposals.

“When you’ve worked to win the majority, you have a responsibility to address the state’s most critical issues,” Mullin said.

“But it can’t wait,” Strege said. “These are urgent problems that need solutions. And they need solutions now.”

In other words: Do we pay now? Or later?

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