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SR 99 tunnel tolls, WSDOT
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WSDOT more than $1 billion in the red, gets ‘basically a bag of beer nuts’ in federal funds

WSDOT signs at the SR 99 tunnel in Seattle. (KIRO 7)

Almost everyone hitting up lawmakers this legislative session will have their hands out, trying to make up for revenue lost to the pandemic. One of the biggest asks might come from the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

WSDOT’s revenue projections, just like everyone else’s, took a beating in 2020 and continue to do so. Fewer people driving to work equals fewer gas tax dollars to fund projects and maintenance. Fewer ferry trips also equals fewer fares and less money in the bank account.

WSDOT head Roger Millar said the agency is coming up $1.3 billion short of its projections. It will be asking the Legislature to help make up those funds. Does that mean new taxes? Does that mean an increase in the gas tax? We have already talked about the need to increase tolling prices to help those facilities, since there are also fewer tolling dollars out there.

Millar said there are going to have to be some serious conversations.

“It’s concerning that we’re not in a bright, shiny revenue circumstance, but we’ve all been here before,” he said. “We need to remain calm as we address this.”

One thing is certain, Millar said, which is that some much needed projects are going to have to be pushed back. The projects that won’t be deferred are related to fish passage work. Governor Inslee has made it quite clear that the state will continue to spend aggressively to replace culverts that impede fish. That work is also under a federal court mandate.

Millar said the state asked for money from the federal government to help make up for some of its losses, but it didn’t get much.

“We told them we were hungry and wanted a meal,” Millar said of WSDOT’s ask from Congress. “The state got less than $200 million in transportation funding. We needed a meal, but basically we got a bag of beer nuts.”

The one place where WSDOT really needs to step up its funding is on maintenance. The freeways continue to age and maintenance continues to be pushed off. That’s something Millar said can’t happen for much longer without significant consequences.

“We could end up having a bright, shiny, and new 167/405 corridor and a bright, shiny new Gateway Project and have nothing to connect it to because the rest of the system has fallen apart,” Millar said.

I’ll be watching the Legislature closely this session, watching for any new tax proposals or plans to delay major projects. It is the Legislature that decides what projects to fund.

And it will be seeing a lot of hands out this session.

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