Transit supporters from Seattle and the region have been working hard to get Sound Transit to the ballot by 2016, and with good reason. We desperately need better rail transit. Unfortunately, our zeal for rail is being used against us to produce a transportation package that does far more harm than good.
Just as in 2007 with the ill-fated Roads and Transit plan, today’s proposals are weighted down with wasteful and polluting highway expansion. Highway spending rejected then is now back, including the repackaged Puget Sound Gateway megaproject. Environmentalists have long warned of the effects of these highway projects on sprawl and global warming. New research based on the Database of Road Transportation Emissions shows that more transit doesn't offset the damaging effects of sprawl, more highways, and the increased driving they beget.
The transportation proposals are not about maintaining our crumbling infrastructure. Governor Inslee’s proposal spends more than twice as much on new highway expansion—$5.9 billion—as it does on repairs.
The senate-passed measure is even worse—$8.3 billion would be spent on new pavement, while only $1.4 billion would fund maintenance over 16 years. The house package passed out of committee allocates $8.4 billion to new projects, with $1.6 billion to fund maintenance, also over 16 years. (And with a possible $1.3 billion buy down through "practical" project redesign.) This is far from enough to repair Washington's 382 structurally deficient bridges. The house proposal directs $200 million to I-5 repaving, a scant down payment compared to the likely need. Pro-highway forces continue to push a 1950s vision of a web of freeways, and are trying to use Sound Transit as the vehicle to realize it.
The financial ramifications are immense. New construction has been soaking up ever greater proportions of the gas tax. State treasurer Jim McIntire recently warned that more than 50 percent of the gas tax was already going to pay the debt incurred for new construction, and legislative proposals could spike that to 90 percent. If all the gas tax is going to new construction, where’s the money for basic repairs? The treasurer also warns of the potential effect on Washington’s bond rating, which would raise the cost of every state infrastructure project. The legislature is doubling down on a money-sucking strategy—build megaprojects now, and then come back later for taxes for basic maintenance, as well as the inevitable cost overruns.
The senate's proposed funding package also does extraordinary damage to other environmental policies. For example, it sweeps up funding dedicated for toxics clean-up. It contains a poison pill trade-off to prevent low carbon fuel standards. It even allocates $85 million to build a railroad overpass that would only benefit a proposed coal export terminal.
But most troubling, these proposals hobble education financing. The legislature is proposing to give Sound Transit priority use of property taxes, a funding source that education depends on, and raise the gasoline tax while the Republican-led senate refuses to consider more revenue for education and social services. Consider the absurdity of the situation—the state legislature is under a court order to fund education, yet it would harm education to fund more costly megaprojects.
It is deeply unfortunate that the legislature wants to use our desire for light rail to do such harm to our other progressive values. In our enthusiasm, we have been giving political leverage to those who do not share our values on global warming, controlling pollution, or funding education. We should instead demand a transportation package that is truly good for the environment and supportive of our values.
The sense of urgency belongs with education and social services, not transportation. The legislature can attend to Sound Transit funding authority again next year, in plenty of time for a 2016 ballot measure. The economy will not be harmed by failure to build the proposed highway expansions. Truly urgent maintenance needs can be funded now with a more modest gasoline tax increase than either the senate or house proposes. Indeed, repair and maintenance would create more jobs per dollar than new construction.
Progressives, environmentalists, anyone who cares about how we spend tax dollars should not settle for this bad transportation deal. Demand that house and senate leaders do transportation investments well, even if it means a cooling-off period that pushes these proposals into the next session. This will give progressives time to build support for outcomes we believe in, and protect the public from truly bad projects and policies.
Mike McGinn is a former mayor of Seattle. Tim Gould is chair of the Sierra Club's Transportation & Land Use Committee.