Olympian: Time for a new direction in transportation funding


Op-ed by Sens. Randi Becker and John Braun

During the 2013 legislative session there was a debate about whether to raise the state gas tax to fund a new transportation package. Some, including the governor, want to enact such a plan. But what we’re hearing from the public is that many are not as eager to hand over more at the pump.

The public’s reluctance to support a higher gas tax is likely rooted in recent high-profile errors in transportation projects around the state.

In Vancouver, there’s the Columbia River Crossing – a replacement bridge designed with such low clearance that significant commercial marine traffic would be blocked.

Cost overruns for the new state Route 520 bridge in King County are now projected to grow in excess of $400 million, due primarily to concrete pontoons that won’t float.

Closer to home, pieces of the state Route 16 on-ramp in Tacoma didn’t match up.

No one doubts the need for quality roads and improved infrastructure. The state’s Department of Transportation is staffed with smart, hard-working professionals. So the question becomes: What does it take to restore public trust?

In the Senate, we are listening. We scheduled 10 transportation forums around the state. DOT officials and other lawmakers are joining us for the meetings, making this a truly inclusive and collaborative process.

Once the people have their say about our top transportation needs and where the system can be improved, we will have a better feel for how to move forward. That’s important because our region of the state has some pressing infrastructure needs.

Take state Route 167, for example. One recent estimate found that finishing the corridor from Tacoma to Puyallup would boost our state’s economy and create 80,000 permanent jobs, in addition to the temporary construction jobs from building the project. That’s economic development we need, but it won’t happen without public support.

Interstate 5 is the most important traffic artery in Thurston County and Western Washington. It must be protected from floods in the Chehalis River Valley like those that shut the highway down a few years ago. The Legislature took a major step in the right direction when it approved funds for to protect I-5 from floods in Lewis County. There is, however, still much work to be done on this project, and it is still not fully funded.

Fortunately, there are ways to free up money for projects that have been neglected or are not fully funded — meaning they can go forward without a steep increase in the state gas tax. It’s a matter of looking for ways to make transportation spending more efficient.

For instance, by streamlining environmental permitting, rethinking prevailing-wage and apprenticeship requirements, returning the sales tax paid on transportation construction to the transportation budget and using the state’s Environmental Stewardship Account to address stormwater issues, millions of taxpayer dollars can be rerouted. Independent reviews of projects would ensure that if things do go wrong, there is accountability.

These and other reforms need to receive serious consideration.

Collaboration will be the key to getting our state’s transportation system back on track. Now is the time to share your thoughts. We’re listening.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, represents Washington’s 2nd Legislative District. Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, represents the 20th Legislative District.