Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA eyes new U.S. transpo bill funds, but with questions

by July 18th, 2012

The passage of a new two-year $100 billion-plus federal transportation funding bill by Congress June 29 is expected to bring roughly $652 million to Washington state in 2013 and $657 million in 2014, compared to roughly $652 million for 2012, according to federal Department of Transportation estimates. But the new law is an authorization bill – meaning Congress still has to actually appropriate the money later when each fiscal year rolls around. Most telling, that $1.309 billion in the next two years is a tiny drop in the bucket, compared to the $50 billion that a blue ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire said in January that the state needs to raise to maintain and strategically improve surface transportation infrastructure in the next ten years (Page 3, here ). That’s so, even compared to the “lowered expectations” scenario in the task force report, which urges raising at least $21 billion in the next decade for the state’s road and transit systems. A poster child for Washington’s transportation funding shortfall is the new State Route 520 bridge, now under construction. It is still about $2 billion short of the needed funding, which totals more than $4 billion.

Overall, state transportation policy leaders and experts are hesitant to say how system needs will be funded in the mid- and long-term, although the state is quietly moving toward selecting a contractor to initate the first phase of study on a so-called “road user charge” approach, also known as the vehicle mileage tax. It would use on-board tracking devices or other technologies to bill drivers based on factors such as type of road, or real-time congestion of chosen routes, and perhaps other criteria.

Controversial approaches such as system-wide electronic highway tolling in metro regions, and the mileage tax concept, are gaining steam behind the scenes because old approaches are proving weak. A key piece in the U.S. transportation bill’s passage is keeping the federal gasoline tax at 18.4 cents a gallon – the same level it has been since 1993. States do add their own gas tax to that of the feds, at the pump. But although Washington state in the early 2000s authorized two small increases in its share of the gas tax, and completed numerous projects as a result, decades of population growth and road use in Central Puget Sound, combined with other factors, appear to have rendered the gas tax relatively impotent. Two big reasons why, according to the Governor’s task force report, are that even as vehicle miles travelled continue to increase at a modest pace, adding to the wear and tear on roads, vehicles continue to get better and better mileage, meaning less revenues from the by-the-gallon gas tax. Another problem, according to the report and many observers, is that the gas tax has not been indexed to inflation.

Diverting federal funds for new transportation bill
To fund the new federal transportation spending authorization bill, Congress had to siphon an estimated $37 to $38 billion, or slightly more than a third of the total, from other U.S. government accounts, according Larry Ehl, an Edmonds-based independent transportation analyst and blogger who formerly served as federal liaison for the Washington Department of Transportation. The bulk of that diverted money comes from complex federal pension funds juggling. The rest comes from money originally slated for disaster relief funding plus the elimination of a federal tax exemption on roll-your-own-cigarette machines.

So all in all, recent passage of the authorization bill serves mainly to underscore the pickle in which the both Washingtons find themselves regarding surface transportation funding. In Washington state, transportation policy leaders are hesitant to talk out loud about how to close the gap.

State’s anticipated surface transpo needs outpace revenues
Pages 8 and 13 of the Washington Transportation Comission’s long-range plan estimated that the state’s transport needs would cost from $63.8 billion to $200 billion from 2010 to 2030. But projected state transportation revenues from 2009 to 2025 are only $46.7 billion. The question is where the extra money will come from.

Hike the gas tax?
In an e-mail, Ehl wrote: “Realistically, increasing the gas tax is the primary method. Weight, tire, vehicle fees raise very little in the scheme of things. Tolling and public private partnerships play a role, but fit very few projects.” Page 15 of the commission’s same report shows that 52 percent of Washington’s predicted transportation revenue from 2009 to 2025 comes from gas taxes. Another 21 percent comes from licenses, permits and fees. Twelve percent is predicted to come from the federal government. Tolling is at only 3 percent. Other sources are similar tiny fractions.

Years-distant VMT could be “game-changer”
That could shift based on policy decisions, but it’s not a solid bet right now. In his e-mail, Ehl added: “System-wide tolling has the potential to raise a fair amount. But it’s probably more beneficial in terms of managing traffic congestion; it’s less expensive than adding new lanes and roads. Most problematic is the lack of the public’s and elected officials’ support for system-wide tolling. (Public-private partnerships) for new express toll lanes or highways (such as Washington 167 and perhaps the Columbia River bridge at Vancouver) have been a mixed bag to date…It might be a good approach to get something built quickly (as opposed to waiting for government funding) but it is not a financial silver bullet. A vehicle miles travelled tax could be a game changer but is far, far off. (There are) privacy, and rural transportation issues to address. Actually the privacy issues could be rapidly solved, but the public likely won’t believe it.”

Meanwhile, Ehl’s blog said last Wednesday that the federal bill eliminates a major funding source for high-occupancy lanes on highway, except when those lanes are exclusively used for mass transit. Washington’s HOV lanes handle both transit and private vehicles — making transit authorities using them ineligble for money allocated by the federal Fixed Guideway funding formula That translates to costing King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit and Pierce Transit possibly $20 million to $25 million in annual federal help, Ehl wrote.

Bike and transit system needs are part of the equation
However, Carrie Dolwick, policy director at the Seattle-based Transportation Choices Coalition, said more study is needed before saying whether the bill will take away bus and light rail money from Central Puget Sound. The possibility exists of grants, or that other sources could be found after deeper reading of the bill, she speculated.

Meanwhile, the Washington Transportation Commission’s long-range plan estimates that the state’s transit projects will need $5.8 billion between 2010 and 2030, and $1.6 billion for bicycle- and pedestrian-related work.

Dolwick said the federal bill trimmed funding for bicycle and pedestrian uses nationwide by 40 percent. She said the state has some flexibility in rerouting a bit of the federal money to buses and bikes. Right now, roughly 5 percent of Washington’s transportation funding goes to transit, less than the national 20 percent, she said, as an argument for shifting some funds. In the long run, Dolwick said the state legislature could look at allowing local governments the option to install or raise local fuel, motor vehicle excise or property taxes to increase local-level money for transit and biking system improvements.

The federal bill includes $20 million for capital improvements for Washington State Ferries. The money cannot go to ferry construction, and will likely go to terminal improvements. However, State Rep Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) and chairwoman of the Washington House Transportation Committee, said it might be worth exploring to see if the money could be legally used to refit existing ferries to use natural gas as fuel. Ehl said a question facing the 2013 session will be if the legislature will use the federal $20 million to increase the ferry capital funds by that amount, or juggle budgets to produce an extra $20 million elsewhere.

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