Infrastructure uncertainty – in Congress and Olympia

Here’s what frustrates transportation planners and the people dependent on good roads and bridges. The feds finally get around to addressing the highway trust fund and …

The U.S. Congress voted to extend federal funds for highways and mass-transit programs through July while lawmakers work on a longer-term financing plan.

The Senate’s voice vote early Saturday followed House passage Tuesday of the measure, which will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. The Highway Trust Fund’s current authority to reimburse states for transportation spending is set to expire May 31, at the start of the summer construction season.

Two months! Not nearly good enough. We wrote about the unstable federal-state partnership in our research report

Historically, the federal government has played a significant role in funding maintenance and preservation of state roads and bridges; however, federal funding has become less certain in recent years. The ongoing uncertainty makes planning difficult and further delays vital investment. 

The National Association of Manufacturers makes the right point.

Dealing with long-term transportation funding at a later date is not leadership.

With deteriorating roads and bridges, aging transit systems and growing maintenance backlogs across the states, Congress is telling manufacturers, businesses and the American people that transportation can wait.

The News Tribune editorial board has a similar message for Washington legislators.

The most pressing problem is congestion and the slow strangulation of freight movement. The Legislature could do something about it tomorrow: approve a transportation package that — in different forms — has already cleared both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

So far, the Republican and Democratic lawmakers haven’t made the necessary compromises. Failure to do so before they go home would be beyond shameful.

Funding a sustainable, long-term and  comprehensive transportation package must be a priority in the second special session here. And Congress needs to recognize that it is a vital partner and act provide the certainty states require. The investment can’t wait.


More editorial support for Senate transportation package

Two recent editorials encourage lawmakers to keep working on comprehensive transportation legislation, using the Senate package as a model.

From the Seattle Times:

THE state Senate, after two years of frustrated effort, has passed a $15 billion transportation package. Its 11 measures — a mix of reforms and revenue — are key to relieving traffic congestion with investments in transit and roads and maintaining the state’s existing highways and bridges.

A bipartisan group of senators exercised some imagination to negotiate and shepherd this compromise, which includes an 11.7-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, through their chamber. The deal could create an estimated 200,000 jobs over the next 16 years.

State House leaders must keep the momentum going.

And from the Wenatchee World:

It was a bipartisan effort, and an accomplishment in and of itself. The state Senate Tuesday approved a $15 billion transportation package, a series of administrative reforms, and a phased 11.7-cent increase in the gas tax. It was a difficult, but large step forward toward the ultimate goal of making an adequate investment in the state’s infrastructure, essential to our economic well-being.

The truths are evident. The state requires a functioning and modestly efficient transportation system to move its goods and people, the fuel for economic growth.

Exactly right.

Spokane Spokesman-Review: State needs a gas tax increase

The Spokesman-Review editorial board makes a compelling case for raising the gas tax now. (It’s a great editorial, though it does dredge up some unhappy Super Bowl memories to make a point.)

When legislators debated a gas-tax increase at this time last year, the statewide average price per gallon was $3.32, according to AAA. On Wednesday, it was $2.15 statewide and $1.76 in Spokane.

Not raising the gas tax this year is like failing to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the half-yard line.

But the state better hurry and huddle up, because Congress may be coalescing around a federal gas-tax increase of 12 cents per gallon to shore up the deficit in the U.S. Highway Trust Fund.

The Opportunity Washington research report expands on the need to invest in transportation this year.

In 2012, the Connecting Washington Task Force, a blue-ribbon commission of labor, government, and business leaders chaired by Gov. Chris Gregoire, reported that Washington’s population is expected to grow by 28 percent by 2022, annual vehicle miles traveled are expected to reach 60 billion by 2020, freight volumes are expected to triple by 2035, and central Puget Sound transit ridership is expected to grow 90 percent by 2040.

Accompanying these projected needs are funding challenges. Revenue from the fuel tax, the primary revenue source for transportation projects, cannot keep pace with demand due to increased vehicle fuel efficiency reducing the amount of fuel purchased in the state. Connecting Washington recommended a state investment of $21 billion over 10 years for preservation and new projects. (The full cost of meeting the state’s needs was estimated to total $50 billion.)

Lawmakers have not approved a significant new statewide transportation investment since those recommendations were released.

Legislative transportation leaders appear to be getting closer to reaching agreement . At AWB’s Legislative Summit:

Sen. [Curtis] King [Senate Transportation Committee Chair] said that before the Legislature moves ahead with a transportation package, cost-saving and accountability reforms must be put in place.

“As the talks move forward, we are getting closer on reforms we agree on and finding common ground on a few sticking points,” King said. “I give a lot of credit to the labor unions. We are moving forward together as a united front on this effort.”

The Spokesman-Review indicated that this year, creative revenue alternatives may be a problem.

…Gov. Jay Inslee has complicated matters by announcing a wholly new approach to infrastructure funding: a cap-and-trade carbon scheme that would produce uncertain results. Inslee wants to “tax polluters instead of commuters,” who, by the way, are also polluters. His plan would subject the state’s largest carbon emitters to this carbon levy without raising the gas tax.

However, the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees are cool to the idea.

Inslee gets points for creativity, but dropping an idea of this magnitude into the middle of the debate is unhelpful. 

A lot of work has gone into documenting the need for investment and establishing funding priorities. The sooner lawmakers can reach agreement on how to pay for what must be paid for, the better off we will all be.