Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA transportation funding bills an exercise in caution

by Matt Rosenberg January 27th, 2012

A recently released report from a special task force convened by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire says Washington state should settle for no less than $21 billion of a needed $50 billion in surface transportation spending over the next decade to preserve the system and make strategic corridor investments. But if the legislature will be stepping up to that lesser challenge in a big way, it is proceeding quite cautiously so far in the current session. The centerpiece transportation funding bill in the senate, SB 6455, would if passed in current form garner by 2023 little more than one-twentieth of the recommended $21 billion.

It would ramp up gradually with projected revenues of $79.3 million in 2013, $215 million from 2013-2015 and $221.8 billion in 2015-17, according to an updated accompanying fiscal note provided by the state Office of Financial Management to Public Data Ferret Thursday. If 2015-2017 revenues held steady through 2023, the legislation would yield slightly less than $1.2 billion total in the decade starting next year.

The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on SB 6455 earlier this week. It was drafted in response to a proposed $3.6 billion 10-year transportation funding plan outlined by Gregoire after her transportation task force issued its report.

A report on SB 6455 by committee staff details hikes in commercial vehicle license fees, other vehicle fee hikes, a new $100 annual fee for electric vehicles, a new $5 fee for the purchase of each studded tire, and a $1.50 fee for each barrel of petroleum products processed in the state.

Under the bill local or regional bodies called transportation benefit districts with a two-thirds vote of their governing bodies could create additional funding to help meet their needs with an additional annual fee of up to $40 per vehicle. Counties could impose a vehicle excise tax of up to 1 percent of the value of a vehicle. Separately, state-authorized electronic tolling is being rolled out on a number of highway corridor projects and will add to funding but state projections show it won’t be a fiscal silver bullet.

Public attention often fastens on how to pay for high-profile projects such as the replacement of the State Route 520 bridge connecting Seattle with Eastside job centers such as Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. It is still about $2 billion shy of needed dollars for completion even after the factoring in of years of revenue from recently-initiated electronic tolling. But another key concern for lawmakers, local and regional officials, and especially motorists is degraded pavement and deferred road maintenance. This priority is emphasized in the Governor’s task force report. Costs for maintaining roadways and ferry service are pegged at $3.1 billion over 10 years.

The scale of the state roads maintenance challenge alone (not including state ferry service maintenance) is indicated in a September 2010 report from the Washington Department of Transportation’s Materials Laboratory to the legislature.

It says the state has already budgeted $1 billion from 2011 through 2021, or an average of $100 million annually, specifically to help eliminate the backlog of asphalt pavement repair projects. But the report also warns that it would take twice that amount, or $200 million annually over ten years, to do the job. The report adds that for $176 million annually the state could at least keep the backlog from growing larger, but less than that amount of annual pavement rehab spending will cause the backlog to grow.

If approved SB 6445 would dedicate at least $30 million a year to pavement preservation.

A more narrowly-focused bill prepared as part of an alternative legislative strategy in case the more sweeping SB 6455 fails to advance, focuses just on the proposed $5 fee for each studded tire purchased in the state. Yet it also illustrates the gap between maintenance costs and dedicated revenues. The staff report for SB 6032 – also heard by the senate committee this week – notes that studded tires cause $24.7 million worth of damage to state roads each year. But the accompanying fiscal note projects the new studded tire fee would raise only about $525,000 to $560,000 per year.

Public Data Ferret’s Washington+Transportation+Finance & Budget archive

The governor’s task force report, called “Connecting Washington,” stresses that by law less than one-quarter of existing state fuel tax revenues can be used to address maintenance, operations and other unaddressed system needs. The rest is dedicated to paying off debt issued for 421 priority transportation projects now being completed by the state in connection with two gas tax hikes last decade. The report also emphasizes the purchasing power of the state gas tax has declined sharply because of inflation and because actual revenues have been broadly lagging estimates. It also accents expected major increases in population, jobs and vehicle miles traveled. The report recommends that far more sweeping strategies be seriously considered to secure long-term surface transportation funding for the state.

In the longer term, higher standards of vehicle fuel efficiency, the emergence of electric vehicles, changes in development patterns and other factors will continue to erode the viability of the fuel tax as the primary source of funding for maintenance and improvement of the transportation system. Therefore, the Task Force urges the Legislature to support the exploration of alternative mechanisms that could provide more stable and predictable funding over the long term. This would include mechanisms such as a direct user fee that is based on miles traveled, wear-and-tear on the roadways, or other direct impact upon the transportation system, allowing the system to be managed and funded as a statewide transportation utility with rates based upon use.


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