Op-ed by Sen. John Braun
It’s time to get Washington’s transportation system moving again.
Here in Lewis County, we are highly dependent on a functioning highway system, without which our timber industry as well as other businesses would be unable to ship their products.
Many people also commute long distances to and from work. Our highways need to be first-rate to accommodate our need for mobility; unfortunately, they are not always up to the task.
Take the state Route 508 bridge between Onalaska and Cinebar. This bridge has a score of 2 out of 100 in safety and weight restrictions in the National Bridge Inventory, a Federal Highway Administration database. We need to get serious about replacing dangerous bridges such as this, but the state Department of Transportation says it won’t be able to get around to that particular bridge until 2017.
Interstate 5, of course, is essential to the economy of Lewis County. We need to finish the widening project between Chehalis and Grand Mound. Additionally, we must protect this vital highway from devastating floods such as those Lewis County suffered in the past decade.
The Legislature took a meaningful step this year toward protecting Interstate 5 when it included Chehalis River Valley flood-control protections in the capital budget. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done on this project, and it is still not fully funded.
Lawmakers approved a new two-year transportation budget this year and spent many hours discussing an additional package of projects. However, no agreement was reached, a major reason being that the DOT has proven itself to be a poor manager of taxpayer resources.
It’s difficult to have confidence in an agency that championed an expensive new Columbia River bridge with such low clearance that it would significantly block commercial river traffic. It also is difficult to trust an agency that’s handled the state Route 520 bridge project, in King County, so badly that there are now more than $400 million in potential cost overruns, including the concrete pontoons that wouldn’t float. With this level of waste and mismanagement, it is hard to see how anyone could have supported the gas-tax hike of 10.5 cents per gallon sought by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Additionally, Inslee’s refusal to even look at alternatives to the flawed design of the Columbia River Crossing project doomed any possibility of a new transportation package.
The Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus shares voters’ concerns about transportation and believes business-as-usual at DOT is no longer an option. That’s why we’ll be going throughout the state this fall to get taxpayers’ input on what they expect from our transportation system and their ideas for funding it.
We want an independent review of projects, with real consequences and changes if things go wrong. Before pumping more money into the transportation system, we need to fix the system responsible for all aspects of our transportation infrastructure.
With some intelligent reforms, such as streamlining environmental permitting, prevailing-wage and apprenticeship requirements, returning the sales tax paid on transportation construction to the transportation budget and using Environmental Stewardship Account funds to address stormwater issues, we could free up millions of dollars that could be spent on other projects throughout the state.
Washington’s taxpayers deserve better stewardship of their hard-earned money than we’ve seen from the DOT. The time for transportation reform is now.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, represents the 20th Legislative District and is chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee. He is president of Braun Northwest, a family-owned company that builds specialty emergency vehicles.