Transportation 2015: Growing beyond our fears
For four years the battle has raged in Olympia about how to pass a comprehensive transportation package that invests in our state’s public infrastructure, enables our global economy and meets the needs of rural towns, suburban communities and big cities. For four years the dialogue has been framed more by anti-tax rhetoric and proprietary regional interests than aspirational ideas of long-term statewide growth. For four years the debate has become smaller and smaller, more defensive, less courageous and strategic. For the first time in an era of divided government, a convoluted bill to raise the gas tax stumbled from the Republican-controlled Senate to the House with a meek but bipartisan 27-22 vote.
The business community, Seattle Times and other proponents are–understandably–so relieved to see any progress on a transportation package that it becomes easy to brush past the lack of intellectual rigor of the plan itself.
Most in Olympia are committed to a bold, modern 21st Century transportation investment plan. Yet the Senate’s transportation package is inadequate not merely because of the gaping holes in the integrity of the bill itself (the numbers don’t balance–there’s hundreds of millions of spending on projects that aren’t actually funded) but because of the smallness of the approach.
Washington’s public infrastructure and transportation network is at a crossroad between mediocrity and greatness. We will attract hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming years. We will continue to grow. Our cities will continue to struggle with density, our suburbs will continue to struggle to mix job opportunities with affordable housing, our rural communities will continue to struggle with limited economic opportunities.
On the spending side, the ragged idea that gasoline taxes are exclusively for roads, highways and concrete and not meaningful investment in transit is so impotent it’s embarrassing for us as a state. State dollars exclusively for highways and concrete and local dollars exclusively for transit brings all sides down to the common denominator of self-serving, narrow interests. The lack of transportation connectedness–integrated transportation network of rural, suburban, city, industrial needs–is where the lack of imagination is weak.
On the revenue side, the idea that gasoline taxes continue to be the best form of taxation is itself so outdated it’s hard to imagine a less creative approach. The plan proposes $15 billion in road, bridge, construction and maintenance investments spread strategically across the state to garner votes. The full range of transit requests add another $15 billion or so–virtually every penny from regressive and economically inefficient tax sources.
So let’s ask: If you had the opportunity to invest $30 billion in taxpayer dollars to build a modern, 21st Century transportation system to meet the needs of our growing state is this how you would raise it and invest it?
Not a chance.
The existing philosophical construct perpetuates the ridiculous notion that transit investments are separate–the responsibility of local taxpayers to fund on top of their gas taxes by a vote of the people. Sound Transit 3, a vital link to the future, is granted $11 billion in incremental taxing authority in a cobbled construct of sales, property and motor vehicle taxes. Kitsap County is asking for authority to raise their sales tax by 0.3% to construct a passenger-only ferry to cut the commute time from Bremerton to Seattle to 35 minutes (talk about economic development). Snohomish County requests the opportunity to add 0.3% sales tax to fund their Community Transit for buses.
Yes, I’m a regionalist, urbanist, modernist, density-supporting advocate to the core, but I’m no less committed to a strategic framework that works for all statewide on the revenue and spending side of the equation.
The package ignores the painfully obvious: Our transportation revenue sources are dying and it’s time to build a more responsible way to fund our entire transportation system. The weakest link in the current transportation package isn’t poison pills, it is the lack of imagination in how to pay for transportation for the next generation of our state. The lack of transparency and oversight of how transportation dollars are spent is also a legitimate concern from all sides. That means everything from the deep-bore tunnel to the massive 167 project and other mega-projects on the table. The public has a right to be skeptical on all sides, and the Legislature’s package must rebuild trust not detract from it.
Let’s invest in the Metropolitan Revolution for our urban region and authentic economic development for our rural communities by building a stronger network of interconnectedness. Silos of road projects dolled out by legislative district is hardly a visionary strategy.
To pay for it, we should seriously consider in this package some new financing approaches that are more economically efficient. Let’s include the idea of a well crafted vehicle miles travelled program (not GPS-based but rather total annual mileage reporting). We should seriously consider a more comprehensive, regional network of tolls to pay for maintenance and operations of our roads. We should seriously consider an incremental Puget Sound-regional gasoline tax that’s free of the 18th Amendment constraints to help fund trains, buses and other transit options. We should consider the idea of strong public and private sector partnerships. We should seriously consider a payroll tax on large employers to help fund targeted investments in transit so the companies’ own employees can get to and from work more efficiently–with the investments supported by business. And we should seriously consider the idea of a carbon-pricing program where polluters pay–or at least receive less of a subsidy from taxpayers– to help fund our statewide transportation system into the next generation.
A transportation package that perpetuates status quo design of transportation financing and spending serves no one effectively. Without an integrated investment approach that tackles rural, suburban and urban needs–and a creative approach to new, market-oriented and user-based ways of financing transportation–it’s just a glorified list of pork projects with the middle class getting handed the bill. That may garner a handful of votes in the Legislature but it’s unlikely to work well for seven million people of Washington.
We are so much more as a state than what we’ve become.
Your partner in service,