Washington Legislature moves transportation toward a costly future

Seattle Times editorial board laments Legislature’s 2019 bonding of TOLLS

They also mention the resurrection of the CRC — “reviving a project scuttled in 2013 by resistance to linking the bridge to the Portland light-rail system.” They fail to mention that both Gov. Inslee and Gov. Brown (OR) are demanding light rail on the replacement bridge.

May 9, 2019

The nearly $10 billion transportation budget the Legislature approved by sweeping margins in April was labeled “bare-bones” by both parties’ Senate transportation leaders. However, taken with other transportation legislation now awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, it sets in motion several transformative changes, including a worrisome financing plan, for how Washingtonians get around. For good and ill, the consequences will reverberate well into the future.

The spending measure, a slight increase over recent biennial transportation budgets, draws on fee increases but did not require adding to the gas tax. It includes a significant step toward the long-needed replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, reviving a project scuttled in 2013 by resistance to linking the bridge to the Portland light-rail system.

Leaders in Washington and Oregon should move ahead with getting a new bridge in place, which will inevitably require years of planning and negotiation. The budget bill’s appropriations for a management office to revive the Columbia River bridge project and preliminary design work signal lawmakers are again taking seriously the need to fix this regional choke point.

Closer to home, the Legislature wisely addressed Eastside commuters’ daily I-405 logjam through a widening project but used a problematic mechanism to cover the cost. That the project is paid for in part by extending tolled sections of the road may have been inevitable.

In a departure from past practice, the financing plan to accelerate this construction and the Puget Sound Gateway between the Port of Tacoma and highways in King and Pierce counties will involve selling up to $1.5 billion in bonds on the tolling. This maneuver will encumber the state.

To bond out a public project is roughly similar to obtaining a mortgage, in that you obtain up-front money in exchange for making interest-augmented payments for years. Bipartisan backers of bonding the I-405 tolls say that the interest costs will be amply offset by economic benefits on two levels: opening the roads’ capacities for commercial use sooner, and avoiding the inflation-boosted cost of doing the work years down the road.

These may indeed carry some benefit, but bonding against toll revenue is a policy choice fraught with peril, and a bad habit for government to take up. It creates a justification to maximize toll revenues in perpetuity, which has been correctly labeled as a policy conflict for a Department of Transportation charged with cutting gridlock. It also increases the state’s debt-service obligations, which inhibits future construction capacity.

With leaders already working to build momentum to pass Washington’s next sweeping transportation package of new projects in a coming legislative session, sustainable financial planning has become an emergent and growing concern.