Saying ‘no’ to roads plan would jeopardize safety

Years of underfunding the preservation and maintenance of our state’s roadways and bridges have created a rapidly deteriorating transportation system that is quickly becoming a liability to public safety and Washington’s economy. To remedy this situation, the Legislature must pass a 10-year transportation investment plan before it closes this frustrating 2013 legislative session.

There will be arguments over the spending priorities of the plan and how to raise the necessary revenue, but lawmakers must be willing to compromise for the sake of their constituents and the state’s economy.

There is nothing more fundamental for government than to provide efficient and safe connections between home and work and from manufacturers of products to the market. And that responsibility falls entirely to our elected senators and representatives, who have for too many years shirked their duty.

The $8.4 billion House transportation proposal doesn’t go far enough. But considering how far behind this state is lagging, even that plan gets us started in the right direction.

The Connecting Washington task force appointed in mid-2011 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire delivered its report to the Legislature in January, calling for a $21 billion investment in preservation, maintenance and new projects. The task force identified a $50 billion need over the next 10 years but stripped its recommendation down to what it considered a politically realistic number.

The House plan proposes only about one-third of that amount. If there’s controversy over the House plan, it’s because spending so little on a basic government service forces unconscionable spending choices.

Keep Washington Rolling, a coalition of business, labor, environment and civic action groups, has been working on this issue since 2005, and its message merits careful consideration. The coalition is pressing state lawmakers to: first, take care of the highways, bridges and ferries that we already have; and second, to finish projects already underway in critical corridors.

Those are excellent priorities on which legislators can base their transportation plan.

Unfortunately, the House version being considered does not put sufficient priority on preservation and maintenance. Only 10 percent of the $8.4 billion package would go toward reversing the degradation of our existing infrastructure, especially the I-5 corridor. That’s an irresponsible amount in terms of both the total package and the essential need.

Commuters to and from Thurston County know all too well about the daily congestion at the Nisqually River bridge and along Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Those are just two of the dozens of choke points along our major corridor from Oregon to British Columbia.

Legislators have an obligation to pass a transportation plan now, not kick it down the road or hand it off to voters. Delaying passage puts citizen safety in jeopardy and will ultimately increase the cost to taxpayers. Transportation projects would benefit now from hungry contractors and historically low borrowing rates. As the extent of deterioration grows over time, the necessary repairs will become more costly. What might cost a dollar today could skyrocket to $5 or $10 down the road.

Recent polling shows that voters want transportation projects that benefit them. Do taxpayers want to pay more? Of course not. But do those same taxpayers want the pothole fixed in front of their house, to drive on safe bridges and to have shorter commute times? Of course they do.

We elected legislators to make tough decisions and have the courage to stand up and defend their position. For public safety and support for the state’s economy, it’s time for the Legislature to get moving and start making the necessary investments in our transportation system.