It turns out you can’t build a $4,000+ million highway mega-project with rhetoric alone.
The competition is heating up for which funds are least likely to magically appear for the CRC. The tea party Congress and evaporating federal gas tax revenues had an early lead. The state treasurers made their pitch, finding a $500 million hole in tolling income. The Oregon legislature holds its own, having nowhere near the votes needed for a big gas tax increase. Now, making a strong move, is the state of Washington.
The headline after Gov. Gregoire’s State of the State address wasn’t “Gregoire to CRC: Drop Dead.” But it might as well have been. While long on rhetoric, Gregoire has been short on cash when it comes to the costly, risky CRC. And her new budget allocates exactly nothing towards constructing the most expensive project in the region’s history.
In her address, Gregoire proposed a big new ten-year, $3.6 billion transportation funding package, funded by a $1.50 assessment on barrels of oil. Most would go to highway and ferry maintenance, with the rest for police, Amtrak, transit, and local maintenance.
No money is planned for huge highway expansions like the Columbia River Crossing and the rest of the $21 billion wish-list from Gregoire’s blue-ribbon Connecting Washington task force – including Spokane’s North-South Corridor, Snoqualmie Pass, Route 167, the 40-mile I-405 corridor, four new car ferries and I-5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Nor are there funds to complete two higher priority mega-projects: the 520 bridge, which is $2.2 billion short, and the transit enhancements for the Seattle viaduct replacement.
As it happens, neither money nor votes grow on trees, and rhetoric is much cheaper than huge highway interchanges.
Washington, like Oregon, built a significant number of transportation projects last decade, paid for with bonds that need to be paid back over the past thirty years. More than one in three of the state’s transportation dollars will go to debt service for the foreseeable future (see page 10 here). Those payments, and the two states’ maintenance needs, will eat up all the projected transportation revenue and then some. (I covered Oregon’s problems December 16th). Last Sunday, the Vancouver Columbian reported on Washington’s problems:
As transportation planners gear up for a big slate of projects in 2012 — even 2013, based on continuing work already underway — the future is less certain, said WSDOT regional administrator Don Wagner. A large spike in public funding is about to dry up...
Transportation officials intentionally front-loaded the work schedule... Wagner said, with borrowing costs to be paid off long-term by gas tax collections.
“We’ll be done with that work in 2014,” Wagner said. “We’re going to pay for that work for the next 30 years … It was not a pay-as-you-go system... We can’t just preserve what we have.”
To her credit, Governor Gregoire decided to do what any responsible person would do - prioritize maintenance, as rebuilding roads costs eight to 12 times as much as maintaining them.
While her proposal would partly fill the maintenance backlog, it’s unclear even it will receive the support it needs to pass the legislature or at the ballot. The proposal has been criticized by groups who want more investment in cost-effective, environmentally responsible transportation modes like walking and biking, as well as oil refining representatives who argue the proposal is a tax, not a fee. If the $1.50 per barrel of oil assessment is a tax, it needs two-thirds majority support in the legislature.
At the same time, Washington initiative king Tim Eyman filed a host of new initiatives this week, three of which would further cut transportation funding in the state.
Even if Gregoire succeeds in passing her big new transportation funding package, and Eyman fails, there is no construction money for the CRC. As the project staff admit time after time, they lack even a single dollar dedicated for construction from any source.
Unfortunately, the CRC is still spending tens of millions of dollars a year on engineering, high-priced consultants, and lobbyists. The Oregon legislature must stop the highway departments from wasting money on this fantasy. Those precious millions could be going to our most pressing needs – maintenance, construction jobs, safety, and improving transportation options around the state, instead of being dumped down the CRC rat hole.
An ongoing talking point from CRC backers is that doing nothing is not an option. Until we pull the plug on the current unaffordable, over-engineered plan, nothing is exactly what will get built.
The video above is from a press conference held yesterday by the Smarter Bridge Committee.