Opinion

Prop. 1: Where do we go from here?

Rep. Judy Clibborn and Rep. Fred Jarrett
Island Forum

Where do we go from here after the failure of Proposition 1?

That’s the question on everyone’s lips since the failure of Proposition 1, Roads and Transit. What we will do next?

To understand how we got to this point, we must go back and understand the past. Until recently, we have neglected investing in transportation. While our population grew, real estate values increased and construction costs escalated. We coasted on investments from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The congestion we experience resulted.

In the last decade, we have begun to invest in transportation again. In 1996, we made a commitment to transit, and more recently the legislature increased the gas tax to fund additional highway projects. In all, we have made commitments to about half of the necessary investments for the next 20-25 years. Roads and Transit was intended to largely complete that investment. Included in the gas tax is the full funding for the Viaduct.

These calculations have been upset, not only by the recent loss of Roads and Transit, but also by changes in the economy. For years, transportation planners have expected gas tax revenue to decline because of the effects of inflation (gas taxes are cents per gallon and those cents erode with inflation) and gas consumption. With higher gas prices, people are switching to higher-mileage and alternative-fuel vehicles, and they’re driving less. This is good for the environment and not unexpected, but it is happening faster than predicted.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to shift responsibilities for transportation to states and local government. A generation ago, freeways were built with 90 percent of the funding coming from the federal government. Today, less than a fifth comes from Washington, D.C.

Figuring out our strategy to deal with financing our transportation system will take time and will include discussions of a number of approaches, both conventional and innovative.

For example, public-private partnerships (PPP’s) might have been an answer to state transportation funding problems, but experience has toned the excitement down. What, at first blush, seemed an easy and cheap way to build new roads turned out to be new tolling without reductions in gas or other taxes. Some states even signed non-compete clauses, prohibiting the public from building roads or requiring that traffic signals on public arterials be synchronized to slow traffic!

Another proposal is comprehensive tolling of the regional system. Ron Sims has suggested this approach to both finance transportation investments and change commuting behavior. Called “congestion pricing,” it would vary the price of tolls based on the time of day.

Others have pointed out the existing transportation system doesn’t perform as well as it might. At the peak of commute demand, for example, our freeways move as few as half of the cars they could. And our transit systems could significantly increase the number of commuters to regional job centers. Improvements would require changes in the way we operate roads and transit.

Governance will be another discussion. A year ago, former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Eastside businessman John Stanton proposed a reform on how we make decisions and manage transportation in central Puget Sound. Their proposals didn’t get traction in the legislature, but we expect proposals this session.

While all of these ideas will be considered, building a new strategy will take time — likely, more time than we will have in a short legislative session. But SR 520 doesn’t have the luxury of time.

RTID had $1.1 billion for the 520 bridge. While this did not fully fund the project (even after tolling for $1.2 billion), we contemplated making up the shortfall with federal bridge funds and other money in a state risk pool. But now we’re looking at a $2.4 billion shortfall. Tolling to cover that amount would give us $10 tolls, and it would cause diversion onto I-90 and other roads. That’s unacceptable.

The governor has announced we will have a funding plan for 520 before we leave session. We agree.

Options under discussion include:

  • Early tolling of 520 (tolling the existing bridge now to raise money for the new bridge);

  • Tolling I-90 (via HOT lanes or other lanes);

  • Using transportation project sales taxes to help finance the project;

  • Reducing project costs through redesign; and other ideas.

    As we mentioned earlier, Congestion Pricing — variable tolls that increase or decrease throughout the day, depending on the level of traffic. This will be part of the conversation on how to raise revenue and how to manage traffic. But the jury is out on if or when we as a state will embrace it. In any case, tolling will be part of our future just as it has been a part of our region’s history in order to meet our growing demand for a system with great maintenance needs. The 520 bridge will be tolled, the Columbia River Crossing in Vancouver will be tolled, and other tolls must be considered.

    Needless to say, we have not agreed (and will not agree) to any proposal without a full explanation and public discussion. As recent history has shown, the people of Washington must be provided with a clear understanding of our state’s needs, as well as a clear definition of our goals in order to move forward. We are committed to making sure that happens.

    Islanders Rep. Clibborn and Rep. Jarrett represent the 41st Legislative District in Olympia.

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