(The Center Square) – Shifting from the construction of new and bigger highways and instead focusing on preservation of existing roadways, plus safety and efficiency strategies, would provide better economic and equity outcomes to Washington residents in the next 20 years, says the state Department of Transportation.
Those priorities – plus a call for $24.1 billion in new funding – are among the recommendations contained in a draft Highway System Plan that has been released for public review and comment through Dec. 18. It’s the department’s first such planning update since 2007. The document explores different “investment alternatives” that will be recommended to state legislators.
The draft is intended for long-range planning, not near-term budgeting, the analysis says.
As reported by The Center Square, last month Pasco Bakotich III, a WSDOT maintenance engineer, told the Washington State Transportation Commission that the agency has amassed an $11 billion gap over the past decade between the revenue received and the amount needed to preserve and maintain the infrastructure. He said that WSDOT would need an additional $1.1 billion each year “to meet all the agency maintenance and preservation needs.”
To maintain and repair existing highways between now and 2041, the Highway System Plan “recommends” $17.3 billion in additional funding along with the current “baseline” allocation of $13.7 billion.
“Currently, the preservation program is funded at just 40% of what is needed to keep the state highway system open and functional. This means that the preservation project backlog gets larger each year,” the plan states. “It also makes sense from a taxpayer perspective – underfunding preservation and maintenance ends up costing five times more to restore highways to acceptable condition in the future.”
For safety and efficiency programs, an additional $5.4 billion in new revenue is sought on top of the current $14.4 billion baseline.
However, new highway expansion over the next two decades is a much-lower priority with only $1.4 billion in revenue proposed in addition to the current $9.6 billion baseline amount.
The new revenue recommendations do not include “Move Ahead Washington,” a 16-year, $17 billion allocation approved by legislators during 2022 while the draft plan was being developed. That funding package has provided $1.2 billion for highway preservation and maintenance, $2.4 billion to open 90% of blocked fish passage habitat by 2030 (required by a 2013 federal court ruling), $3.5 billion for new and continuing highway projects, and $4.3 billion for stormwater retrofits, traffic incident responses, and support of safe streets for walking, bicycling, and rolling.
Past legislative transportation packages focused on demand for larger scale highway expansions. But the $200 million cost of just one moderate highway expansion could instead allow WSDOT to preserve 1,200 miles of rural highway for the next 20 years, the analysis noted. Hence the priority shift toward more maintenance of existing roadways – something emphasized during public engagement sessions with local governments, tribes, transportation service providers, and the public at large.
Safety and efficiency were also emphasized. Among the identified factors: a dramatic increase in serious injuries and fatality crashes in recent years, uncertainties over the future of “autonomous” self-driving vehicles, lack of access to safe biking and walking locations, declining gas tax revenue due to increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles and the growing need for charging/fueling stations for electric cars and alternative-fuel vehicles.
Along with legislative direction, the draft Highway System Plan also weighs benefits and obligations in other areas, ranging from greenhouse gas reductions that improve air quality to improving public transit, services for persons with disabilities, encouraging car and van pools, and meeting the needs of underserved communities, lower-income persons, and those with language barriers.
Coming up with additional revenue has been an ongoing discussion between WSDOT and state lawmakers, some of whom have called for revenue from Washington’s Climate Commitment Act and its new quarterly carbon auctions that have already brought in $1.4 billion this year. The state transportation commission has also been discussing a mileage tax levied on vehicles rather than reliance on the current gas tax.
But Washington remains on the move. In 2022, drivers traveled over 34 billion miles on the state’s 7,000 miles of paved highways and bridges.
The public can weigh in the draft Highway System Plan online, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or via a voicemail at 360/704-6371.
The plan is separate from WSDOT’s long-range plans for ferry, freight, rail, and aviation systems.