East County Journal: Time for a better deal on transportation


Op-ed by Sen. John Braun

Washington taxpayers deserve a better transportation deal than what they’ve been getting.

Unfortunately, the state Department of Transportation has not been a wise steward of taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

The department bungled King County’s State Route 520 bridge project to such an extent that it now faces more than $400 million in potential cost overruns, including concrete pontoons that won’t float.

DOT enthusiastically supported a seriously flawed and very costly Columbia River Crossing with such low clearance that it would have blocked some significant commercial river traffic.

On Tacoma’s State Route 16, the department built ramps that didn’t match up.

With such waste and mismanagement by DOT, it should have been no surprise to anyone when that the gas-tax hike of 10.5 cents per gallon sought by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrats in the House of Representatives went nowhere in the Legislature.

Here in Lewis County, we only have to look as far as the State Road 508 bridge between Cinebar and Onalaska to see work that needs to be done, but is barely on the department’s radar screen. With a score of two out of 100 in safety and weight restrictions in the National Bridge Inventory, a Federal Highway Administration database, this bridge clearly needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, but the DOT won’t get around to replacing this dangerous bridge until 2017.

Without a doubt, Interstate 5 is essential to the economy of Lewis County. Commuters and businesses, including our timber industry, depend on it. We need to complete the widening project between Grand Mound and Chehalis. We also must protect this important thoroughfare from the kind of devastating floods Lewis County experienced in the past decade.

This year the Legislature made real progress in protecting I-5 when it provided funding in the capital budget for Chehalis River Valley flood-control protections. There is, however, much work that remains to be done on this project, which is still not fully funded.

Legislators approved a new two-year transportation budget, but no agreement was reached on an additional package of projects despite many hours of discussion. There were many worthwhile projects that needed funding, but the DOT’s poor record of managing taxpayer resources was a major reason for the failure of this agreement.

Additionally, Inslee’s refusal to even consider alternatives to the poorly designed Columbia River Crossing project was the final nail in the coffin for any possibility of a new transportation package.

We, in the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, want big changes at DOT. We share voters’ concerns about how their tax dollars are being used and will travel throughout
the state this autumn to get citizens’ input on their expectations for our transportation system and how they think we should fund it.

Our caucus believes an independent review of transportation projects is a necessity. There must be real consequences and changes when things go wrong. We need to fix the system responsible for all aspects of our transportation infrastructure before we start pumping it with taxpayer money.

Instead of proposing new gas tax increases, let’s make transportation more efficient. This is far from being an impossible dream.

We need to get smart with transportation. Intelligent reforms like rethinking 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 and streamlining environmental permitting. These reforms alone could free up hundreds of millions of dollars for projects throughout the state.

It’s time for a new way of doing things at DOT including better maintenance of bridges and roads. We also need to put more emphasis on relieving traffic congestion instead of expanding mass transit.

Let’s face the facts. Washington’s transportation status quo is not working. We need transportation reform – the sooner, the better.