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Should Washington stop building roads? Some think so



FILE - Traffic passes over the 90-year old Magnolia bridge, aging and in need of replacement, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington state legislators are considering whether to remove “congestion relief” and “improved freight mobility” from their transportation goals, a departure from the American passion to expand highways.

House Bill 2688 would adopt seven goals: accessibility; safety; environment and climate; health and resilience; equity and environmental justice; preservation; and functionality. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) supports the proposal.

“Instead of continuing to build our roads where individual members come up with projects because there’s a congestion in their district, what we need to be doing is we need to be looking at this more holistically,” sponsor Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, testified in committee. “Accessibility is really what we want to get at.”

Her bill defines accessibility as “affordable access to the places and goods Washington residents, organizations and businesses need to live, work, study, play and pray,” by all modes of transportation. A Senate version of the bill was introduced by Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.

Driver advocates say ditching “congestion relief” and “improved freight mobility,” which now appear under a “mobility” goal, might hamper road building.

“We can’t afford to minimize the importance of freight mobility for our roadways,” Washington Trucking Association Executive Vice President Sheri Call told a Senate committee recently. “Washington must continue to deliver projects that provide quality of life benefits for all users of the highways in Washington, and keep our economy moving forward.”

WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar hopes to bring more attention to worn-out roads and bridges. Currently, just 8 cents of the 49.4-center-per-gallong state gasoline tax goes toward maintenance and preservation, he said.

The state borrows so heavily for big projects such as the Highway 99 tunnel, Highway 520 floating bridge and the widening of I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass East, that bond debt is forecast to consume three-quarters of gasoline taxes by 2028.

The declining condition of state highways is “a glide path to failure,” Millar told lawmakers in mid-January.

“That is going to result in some kind of intervention by the federal government,” Millar continued. “We have 4,000 lane miles of pavement that are due for preservation this year, we have another 3,600 miles that are past due, and 1,600 miles in the system that are rated as poor. Our budget currently provides for repaving 750 lane miles a year.”

Only four of 100 steel bridges are being repainted on time, he said.

A few other states are questioning whether they should keep adding freeways.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared in January that his state is probably experiencing “its last major build-out of roads we’ll have in the state of Texas, even considering the fact that Texas is the fastest-growing state in America,” D Magazine reported.

The Pennsylvania DOT adopted what it called a holistic view in 2017, adding safety and environmental criteria.

Millar told a highway-officials convention in Spokane in 2018, “simply put, we cannot build our way out of congestion.”

He’s talking about the phenomenon known as induced demand. Freeway lanes eventually clog because people drive more or developers add housing and retail near interchanges. Lanes typically fill within two years, restoring a kind of traffic-delay equilibrium, said Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute in British Columbia.

As of yet, no state has frozen or canceled highway construction for the sake of reducing car dependency or greenhouse gases, according to Patrick McKenna, Missouri Department of Transportation director and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Environmental aims do limit highways in some communities, McKenna said, but money is a greater constraint. Missouri voters, for instance, have rejected measures to boost their 17-cent gas tax.

“At the practical level, the ability to fund these things is constricted,” he said. “We’ve had multiple decades of a public unwillingness to maintain the system in its current state, never mind expansions.”

Americans drove 3.3 trillion miles in 2018. Gasoline consumption rose for the seventh straight year, to 147 billion gallons, Federal Highway Administration data says.

Seattle-area traffic remains fifth-worst in the nation, causing an average yearly delay of 138 hours per commuter, said new rankings by the TomTom navigation company.

Do goals matter?

The Washington state Legislature already committed $3 billion this biennium to highway improvements. Contractors are widening I-5 through Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and will toll lanes to I-405 between Bellevue and Renton. Work resumes this spring to complete the North Spokane Freeway, proposed in the 1940s.

“We are not against adding capacity. There are places where adding capacity makes perfectly good sense,” Millar said in an interview last week. He praised the Puget Sound Gateway program that will extend both Highway 509 in SeaTac and freight-laden Highway 167 from Tacoma to the Green River Valley.

Mariya Frost, analyst for the Washington Policy Center, said despite robust construction now, more goals could detract from a future wave of needed road building, when lawmakers write a possible $16 billion transportation package in 2021.

“WSDOT is fundamentally a road and bridge agency and should not veer into areas of public health or social engineering, while rejecting its responsibility for improving mobility for all Washingtonians,” she wrote last week.

The legislation goes beyond listing seven goals.

WSDOT would write metrics for each goal, and consult with the departments of health, ecology and commerce to evaluate projects. Some standards are subjective, like “alignment with land-use goals that bring the things people need closer together.”

But other provisions would add teeth to numeric standards already in state law: to reduce statewide carbon emissions by 25%by 2030 from 1990 levels, and redice vehicle miles traveled 30% by 2035 from 2008 levels. The bill revives WSDOT’s Target Zero pledge to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030.

Washington is currently off track to achieve these three standards.

“More than 10 people a week die on our highways,” Millar emphasized.

Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, objected to ceding legislators’ power by giving Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s agency appointees a say in whether projects qualify for money.

Shewmake told Young at a hearing, “I would argue that your constituents probably care about accessibility as their number one goal in looking at a transportation network.”

“No,” Young replied. “My constituents fundamentally care about being able to afford the tolls on the (Narrows) bridge and be able to make their payments, to put gas in their cars, so they can feed their families.”

In the Senate committee hearing, ranking member Curtis King, R-Yakima, declared, “To me, we are introducing things that are totally not transportation.”

King speculated that an environmental-justice goal could hinder repaving to preserve I-82, from Union Gap to Yakima, on grounds that Latino residents nearby have been exposed to exhaust particulate, a health issue flagged by bill proponents.

Money for the new goals might be harder to find.

The state Constitution requires state gasoline taxes be spent on state and local roads. The more flexible car-tab taxes, which can be spent on transit, passenger rail, walking and bicycling, will be slashed if courts uphold Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976.

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