While it took until the end of the second special session, our state Legislators were finally able to pass a budget and get out of Olympia. Unfortunately, they left one large piece of unfinished business for the next session: special project transportation funding. The major projects included in the bill that was voted down in the final days of session are still there. But before raising the gas tax by 10.5 cents to pay for them, reforms are needed.
Washington’s transportation projects are among the most expensive in the country. Some states spend half as much or less for a comparable bridge, overpass or highway. As a result, although the State’s transportation budget has roughly doubled in the past 10 years, little progress is made on the growing list of transportation improvements in need of funding.
The new 520 bridge is a poster child for out of control costs; built for less than $50 million in 1963, it will likely end up costing over $4 billion to replace it. Granted there has been 50 years of inflation, and the new bridge is bigger, but given it is in the same location and uses the same basic design, how is a hundred-fold increase justified? Over a decade’s worth of planning and studies on the bridge totaled almost $400 million, even before construction began.
Why is it so expensive to build a road in Washington State? There are several obvious factors. First, the State of Washington charges itself sales tax on construction, in effect an 8.5% kickback to the State general fund. Prevailing wage laws increase labor costs, and the State’s habit of funding through long term bonds adds millions in interest to a project. Endless environmental review studies and costly mitigation requirements also contribute to costs and delays. There are also concerns about the competence and effectiveness of the Department of Transportation’s engineering and planning, as shown by the cracking 520 bridge pontoons, an over $80 million mistake.
While out of session, leaders in the State Senate are working on a series of reform bills designed to cut the costs of transportation construction in Washington State and give the taxpayers more confidence that their tax dollars are being used wisely. They are planning a number of public hearings statewide to give citizens the opportunity to provide input on next session’s transportation bill. Citizens of Washington who are tired of paying more taxes for less work on new bridges and roads need to attend these meetings, and support the effort to make transportation projects affordable again.
[image courtesy of WSDOT]