The Gristle

Bridges to Nowhere
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BRIDGES TO NOWHERE: U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene joined other state and local officials and business leaders in Mount Vernon on Tuesday to tour the Skagit River Bridge and learn more about how the collapse of a section of that structure imploded the surrounding economy.

The Skagit River bridge handles roughly 71,000 vehicles a day, of which about 12 percent are commercial. An estimated $13.9 billion in commercial traffic crosses the bridge each year, along with millions of consumers spending in the state economy. While more precise numbers may be available later this summer, early estimates place the revenue loss to the local economy at $50 million. Miraculously, no one was killed when the span dropped into the river on May 23.

A visibly annoyed Gov. Jay Inslee blamed state Senate Republicans for not taking up a measure passed in the House that would have increased Washington’s gasoline tax by 10.5 cents a gallon for transportation improvements. The Legislature adjourned Saturday after the Senate declined to vote on a package that might have produced billions of dollars worth of funding for aging roads, ferries, sidewalks and similar infrastructure. More, the bill might’ve coaxed federal matching dollars.

“There are Republicans and Democrats who are both sitting in traffic. There are Republicans and Democrats who would be hired by the tens of thousands if we passed a transportation plan,” Inslee said. “But we have had a total failure by the Republican Party to pass a single transportation package after six months of dithering and inaction by that caucus.”

Leaders of the GOP Senate caucus said they would come up with a plan for raising money for projects while also making changes to the way the Washington State Dept. of Transportation spends money. Doug Ericksen serves on the Senate Transportation committee. That plan did not emerge.

Representative of the 42nd District, Vincent Buys voted against the revenue package in the House; however, Buys notably did support the state’s $33.6 billion capital budget in a rare display of honoring the negotiation.

“As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, voting ‘yes’ on this compromise budget ensures that conservatives continue to have a seat at the negotiating table,” the Lynden lawmaker said. “This budget is a start down the correct path of compromise and with continued negotiations we will have an even better end product in future years.”

True to form, Rep. Jason Overstreet voted against both the transportation package and the overall capital budget, spouting declarations of liberty. Overstreet is the assistant ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

“I believe we need less government, not more,” Overstreet fumed. “Lower taxes, not higher. More freedom, not less. This budget, while avoiding a worst-case scenario, represents much of the same from a state government that continues to grow, overspend and over-regulate.

“We’re not going to throw more money at a broken system,” he shouted.

Which is, of course, broken because the state (shrinking in size for decades when measured against the overall state economy) horribly fails to fund the repairs.

The state ranks 29th in the country (and the worst state in the West) for the condition of its roads, plummeting from about the high-middle of the pack in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Without new investments, more than half the pavement on state roads and highways will be in poor condition by 2023, according to federal estimates. The state’s bridges are crumbling, with more than one in five functionally obsolete. The state ranks 41st of 50 states in the safety of its bridges.

“One of the points that we have been making all session long is that we need a transportation package to take care of what we already have, to maintain our existing built infrastructure but also to finish projects that are already under way,” said Steve Mullin, CEO of Washington Roundtable, a public policy organization representing senior executives from major private sector employers throughout the state. “If we don’t do a better job of financing maintenance and preservation, if we continue to invest at current levels, as much as 50 percent of the pavement on our state highways will be in poor or very poor condition in 10 years,” he said.

The normally tax-averse Association of Washington Business joined the conservative Roundtable in urging the Legislature to consider a transportation revenue package that would put people to work and fix failing roads and bridges, congested highway corridors, and bottlenecked interchanges that undermine the mobility of vehicles, transit and freight carriers to transport people and goods—the very heartbeat of the state economy. Nearly 100 people from cities and businesses across Puget Sound spoke in favor of the measure in Ericksen’s committee; fewer than ten spoke against the measure.

Not only did Ericksen—who has served on legislative transportation committees for more than a decade—fail to persuade his Republican colleagues in the 42nd District to support a transportation funding package, he didn’t support it himself… or offer meaningful alternatives.

Instead Ericksen offered inane praise of government “getting out of the way:”

“While many transportation projects linger for years,” Ericksen said, “a bridge over the Skagit River was built and the road reopened in under a month. This is a great example of what can happen when we get Olympia politicians and bureaucrats out of the way and let the professionals get it done.”

As if the authorization and appropriation (and urgency) did not come directly from Olympia. And as if the work itself was not performed by WSDOT professionals and state contractors. How shall we prioritize lingering state projects? After the fact, based upon their collapse?

The pernicious nature of the state’s regressive revenue structure, based almost exclusively around consumption taxes, means the state’s economic recovery continues to trail other states with a more balanced approach to revenue. Revenue collections have fallen 30 percent between 1995 and 2012. This trend will continue; and the state remains more volatile than most to changes in the economy and how that destabilizes the collection of consumption taxes.

The Legislature’s response to falling revenues has been to stall payments, deny cost-of-living increases to state workers, cram down worker compensation and insurance, crater public schools, and generally grandstand while eliminating any chance to create an equitable, sustainable financial profile. It all has the seeming of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or—more accurately—robbing the future to stiff present realities.

Maybe a gas tax isn’t the way forward. What is the way forward, Republicans?


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