I made some remarks at the Bellevue Rotary yesterday that seem to have been misinterpreted by some people, so I’m clarifying:

Passing a transportation package this session is incredibly important for the Puget Sound region. I support a well-designed package.

  • Metro Cuts

    Starting in January King County Metro will start reducing service to make up for an expiring car tab fee the state authorized them to charge several years ago. You can see the proposed reductions here. The Eastside cuts will result in significantly increased congestion as commuters shift to single-occupancy cars.

  • Arial view of 520 bridge

    The 520 bridge project will stop planning for the next phase. They will lay off the design team, making it difficult to re-start the project, costing millions and adding years of delay. If no package is passed we will have a bridge that has 6 lanes all the way to Foster island, which turns out to not be all that helpful. The exit to Montlake will be dysfunctional and highly congested as buses and HOVs cross three lanes of traffic to get off and on. The vulnerable parts of the bridge will remain – the hollow pillars on the west approach to Montlake and the Portage Bay Viaduct, and could fail in an earthquake or by being struck by a barge. (This happened a few years ago and did serious damage to one of the pillars.)

  • The Seattle metro area has some of the worst congestion in the nation. In 2012 our area was the 4th worst in the nation, according to the Tom-Tom data company. (Link here.) This is a deterrent to businesses locating here, and fixing it has been a major ask of the Boeing Company, Microsoft, and a host of other major employers. As I’m sure you have figured out by now it’s also quite painful to live through.

I support a large transportation investment package to improve this situation and will vote for a package that makes sense.

However, I don’t support just ANY transportation package – it needs to be good for the central Puget Sound. (Other parts of the state care about the impact on their area, which makes putting together a package an incredibly difficult balancing act.) A good package will have a number of key elements:

  1. It will finish projects that are already underway before starting new ones. The 520 bridge project is the most significant of these – it needs to be finished on the current schedule or significant additional costs will be incurred.
  2. There will be a balance between investments in roads and bridges support for transit, and for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Washington will gain about 750,000 new residents in the next ten years, and a large fraction of them will live and/or work in King County. We cannot add enough road surface to let them all drive into Bellevue or Seattle to work. I-5 can’t get widened significantly. We can’t deal with more cars in downtown Bellevue at rush hour, no matter what we do.
  3. The numbers will add up. People don’t talk about this much, but if we underestimate the cost of projects, over-estimate the amount of revenue that will result from gas tax increases or other revenue sources, or borrow too much compared to the amount of revenue we will run out of money before we finish all the projects we are promising. This is why Sound Transit 1 and the Seattle monorail proposals made voters rightfully crazy – they over-promised and under-delivered.

The comments I made were focused on the package proposed by Senator Curtis King of Yakima (chair of the Senate Transportation committee), and is the Senate Republican proposal. It fails all three of these tests.

The 520 project is delayed for 6-8 years, and is underfunded by $100-200 million in today’s dollars. The delay adds inflation, suggesting another $350-500 million would need to be added to get the project we’ve planned today. In addition, a new environmental impact statement would need to be done, and an entire new set of federal, state and local permits would need to applied for and gotten. The cost of this work in time and treasure is staggering, and an incredible waste.

Less than 2% of the total value of the Senate Republican proposal package supports public transit, bike and pedestrian mobility and stormwater management. This may make sense in some parts of the state, but it doesn’t do so here.

The “coverage ration”, a wonky term investors use to measure how much of your revenue you are tying up in bond payments is much too low. This is like applying for a home mortgage that would use 70% or more of your income. The banks won’t give it to you, or they will charge astronomical interest rates. Jim McIntire, our state Treasurer and the guy responsible for selling the bonds is deeply concerned about it. This is fancy talk for saying that there are too many projects and not enough revenue. Some of these projects won’t get built, and it’ll be the ones at the end of the list – 520 and 405.

During the luncheon I was asked about some of the ancillary elements the Republicans have proposed. Some of their reform ideas are genuinely good policy. However, the one that affects what I do in the legislature the most is diverting the sales tax on transportation projects out of the general fund and into road construction. Half of the general fund is spent on education, and we face a mandate from the Supreme Court to increase our K-12 funding substantially. The Senate Republican proposal would require us to raise taxes to replace the funds that were diverted to road construction, the exact opposite of what the they proposed in the regular session. Their proposal would ostensibly shift about $60 million a year, though the way the bill is written the actual amount could be much larger.

The question suggested that we were one of the few states that tax road construction projects (which is true). In my answer I pointed out that we are also one of the few states without an income tax, and that we depend heavily on the sales tax to fund our education system. If we want to change the tax code to be more like those other states I’m open to that conversation, but until then we will need to have a sales tax with a broad base so that we can meet our court-mandated paramount duty.

I didn’t really like the package the House passed last spring either due to inadequate funding for 520, but agreed, at the request of both the major employers in the area and our local city mayors to send it to the Senate to see if we could get a dialog started. That did not happen in the 2013 session, so here we are now preparing for the 2014 session.

The politics of this are difficult. It’s hard to tell how many votes there are in the Senate for the package they’ve proposed, but I don’t believe there are more than 7 or 8 Republican votes. There could be as many as 12 or 13, but it’s hard to see that today. The Senate is a mysterious place to me, so I may not be counting well. There will be few Republican votes for any gas tax increase in the House, so most Democrats would have to vote for it to pass, and I do not believe the support exits for the Senate Republican package as it was proposed. House Democrats clearly support a package – we voted one out of the House in the 2013 session.

Of course, the requirement that we agree before legislation is adopted is why we negotiate with each other. Sen. King and Rep. Clibborn are spending a lot of quality time in each other’s company and I hope they can pull together a package that meets reasonable tests of financial rationality, funds the completion of projects that are under construction today, makes a balanced set of investments and can get the support of a majority of the members of the legislature. I look forward to voting for that package.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.