$8.9 billion with hardly a whisper
The state House passed the $8.9 billion transportation budget on Friday. The two-year legislation funds transportation projects statewide and received overwhelming bipartisan support with only six nay votes among 91 yeas. The newspapers statewide generally ran a simple AP story from the Olympia bureau with bipartisan quotes and no details. The bill now goes to the Senate.
$8.9 billion dollars and hardly a whisper of policy dialogue, political theater or deep analysis in the media.
I did vote in favor of the transportation spending plan despite my reservations about the prioritization of the dollars and a number of troubling policy issues in the package. I did manage to include one major amendment that was accepted on the House floor (increasing flexibility for local, county and state agencies in the purchase of expensive, proprietary radio interoperability equipment).
A second amendment that I sought, to stagger funding for a $10.8 million ‘time sheet’ application for the Department of Transportation rather than hand the entire amount over to the agency upfront, was unfortunately defeated.
Everyone seems distressed that we spend a projected $1.9 billion a biennium on technology in our state, yet actually changing course on major applications for state agencies is something entirely different. Challenging the status quo of the bureaucracy seems radical or even disloyal to some. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t convince a majority of the 98 House members that rather than hand all of the money to the agency up front we should instead force a serious ‘business process’ reform initiative before buying another huge bucket of technology. Had I been a member of the Transportation Committee it would have likely been more successful, but it’s tough to convince members to change course once a bill is on the floor for a final vote.
One serious disappointment for our own legislative district and our neighbors is that a major state grant to improve the West-East travel route along Market to 45th was bumped from a priority spot and the dollars switched to a suburban project. I would have voted against the budget for this reason alone since the state DOT staff has objectively ranked the project near the very top. However, the House transportation leadership has promised to fight hard in negotiations with the Senate to restore the objective rankings and provide the funding as originally planned.
On a broader, more systemic level, it’s hard not to ponder the profound political differences between the transportation budget and the coming operational budget that will, undoubtably, be more partisan and certainly more controversial.
The speeches on the House floor from Republicans were glowing in their praise of the bipartisanship of the Transportation Budget. Rightfully so and it would be a compelling approach to public service if we could replicate the relatively united front that the transportation community presents during budget time.
Still, the reason actually has very little to do with personal friendships or special relationships. The reason the transportation budget is cordial is, of course, that both Democrats and Republicans appreciate the local political benefits that accrue from bringing home state funding for local transportation projects.
It serves both sides to play nicely in the same sandbox. There is no need to openly threaten or even subtly prod members with the loss of potential projects. Everyone in Olympia has that sixth sense.
The ideological, political and/or policy arguments and debates in transportation are simply not between Democrats and Republicans, they are between those advocating a highway centric approach and those advocating a more balanced model where public transit services have at least a fighting chance for resources. Due to the 18th Amendment in our state Constitution gasoline tax dollars may only be used for highways, including water highways of our ferry system, and not for general public transportation. The power dynamic created by this constitutional construction leaves transit advocates a distant third cousin to highway funding. Exceptions are just that: Exceptions.
My own insight into the details of the $8.9 billion is modest at best since my time is spent hunched over line items of the $32 billion biennial operating budget. And yet I do long for a different approach to transportation budgeting that would help us to tackle serious structural challenges more openly.
It is no coincidence that the Transportation Committee has more members of the House than any other committee.
When it comes to transportation spending, Olympia needs only one sheet of talking points for both political parties.
Your partner in service,