When it comes to transportation, the Legislature must face two big imperatives: the need to invest in infrastructure, and the need for a more cost-effective state Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The two are completely, absolutely intertwined, and any increase in the gas tax must be accompanied by major reforms.
When I talk with neighbors in my hometown of Puyallup, I hear these two imperatives loud and clear. People talk about the particular need to finish state Route 167 from where it dead-ends north of the Puyallup River out to the Port of Tacoma. People understand the need to maintain the competitiveness of our ports, to invest in freight mobility and to boost jobs throughout Washington.
Constituents also talk about their frustrations with the WSDOT. They express dismay about the stalled boring machine in the state Route 99 tunnel, the cost overruns and faulty pontoons on the 520 bridge, a design error on state Route 16 in Tacoma, and mismanagement of the ferry system. The status quo isn’t working.
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So, yes, the public is asking for a better transportation system. That means critical freight mobility projects like SR 167 as well as SR 509 connecting the Port of Seattle to Interstate 5. It means congestion relief on I-5 through Joint Base Lewis-McChord, widening of I-405 and completion of the North Spokane Corridor. It means progress on transit.
But above all, it means better stewardship of gas tax dollars. It means accountability to get the job done on time, on budget, and with less bureaucracy and administrative waste.
When the state Senate passed a bipartisan transportation package recently, it wisely attached to a proposed 11.7 cent gas tax a series of reforms I support: use of sales taxes on transportation projects for transportation itself rather than welfare and prisons; streamlined permitting; expanded use of efficient design-build construction methods; more efficient ferry construction; and prioritization of congestion relief in state transportation policy.
Now the ball is in the House’s court. And if the House wants to move forward on transportation, reforms are indispensable.
In fact, the House should add to the Senate’s work. We need additional reforms like expedited permitting and contracting to replace structurally deficient bridges, authorization of public-private partnerships to bring in alternative financing for infrastructure, better use of recycled aggregate and concrete in road construction, provisions for transit agencies to be governed by elected board members and “practical design” policies to ensure that we are not spending more dollars on projects than what is absolutely essential.
Some of these reforms have already been passed by the House, while others await action. If House transportation leaders are serious about reaching a deal this session, they should move quickly on the Senate’s proposed reforms as well as additional House bills.
Failure to reform would be a deal-killer. It would delay critical investments in infrastructure while raising doubts about the Legislature’s ability to solve problems on a bipartisan basis. It would bypass a window of opportunity that may not come around again for years.
On the other hand, a reform-based funding agreement would be a signal of Washington’s high aspirations for public accountability and economic development.
In the back-and-forth about “fixing” or “funding” our transportation system, it’s not an either-or. We must fix and fund at the same time.
State Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, serves on the House Transportation Committee.