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‘We need to keep the lights on’: New transportation plans focus on keeping state afloat

The Thorne Lake interchange in Lakewood. (WSDOT, Flickr Creative Commons)

Grand plans for multi-year, 20-plus billion dollar transportation packages full of green energy proposals are on the back burner now, as the Legislature focuses on trying to survive the impacts of the pandemic.

When the Legislature began work in January, House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey put out a 16 year, $26 billion transportation plan with carbon fees and an 18 cent gas tax increase to fund new proposals. Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs offered his own 16 year plan at $19 billion dollars with a potential carbon fee and a 6 cent gas tax.

After realizing how much money the state didn’t collect in gas tax revenue, toll revenue, ferry fares, and other sources because of the pandemic, Fey and Hobbs knew they had to focus on the now.

Both are out with two-year plans worth $10-11 billion.

“This is not the budget I wanted,” Senator Hobbs said in a public hearing on Tuesday. “This is the budget we need. We need to keep the lights on; we need to keep preservation and maintenance going. We need to keep the ferries running. We need to keep buses running. This is what we have.”

Sen. Hobbs’ plan focuses on maintenance and preservation of roads, fish culvert replacement, and transportation essentials. It also delays funding for some projects approved and funded six years ago in the Connecting Washington plan, like the Gateway Project, which extends 167 from Puyallup to Tacoma and the north end of I-405.

“We made some painful decisions, decisions that were based on values of this committee of safety, preservation, and maintenance, and trying to do everything we can to maintain the promise of Connecting Washington,” Hobbs said. “Not everyone will be happy and I’m sorry about that, but that is what we are given today based on the resources.”

Hobbs and Fey’s budget proposals rely heavily on a billion dollars from the federal government under the latest COVID relief bill, known as the American Rescue Plan.

Rep. Fey told a House hearing on Tuesday that the state would be in serious trouble without those federal dollars.

“The prospect for revenues aren’t great going forward,” Fey said. “We do not know how much continuing impact COVID will have on our revenues going forward. The federal money is greatly appreciated.”

But there could be a problem with using those federal dollars for culvert repair, as that work might not meet the spending requirements set forward in the federal bill.

The budgets also get the benefit of nearly $300 million worth of car tab revenue that had been sitting idle during the court battle over I-976.

Both budgets set aside money to backfill the tolling accounts, which we reported last week are off $93 million for 2020. Some of those accounts might not actually have the money to meet their obligations. Toll increases are expected on 520, 99, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge without legislative help.

Amendments to both budgets are due today, and then the real hard work begins, to find compromise and get something passed.

Sen. Hobbs, like all of us during this pandemic, is finding it hard to budget during a pandemic with so many unknowns.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It wasn’t easy last year. Last year sucked too, and this year was double suck.”

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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