The Transportation Crisis Facing Washington’s Next Governor

Of 325 projects Wash. DOT finished since ’03 & ’05 gas tax increases, 87% were completed early or on time, 91% were on or under budget.

February 2013 update: Washington ranks #6 on Forbes’ new list of states that will boom in next ten years. Transportation improvements will be critical to fostering that boom.  See Part One of our series, What Washington’s Next Governor Thinks about Transportation Funding and Policy.

Whoever is elected Governor of Washington state this November faces daunting transportation funding and policy issues. Yet education, jobs, and health care issues seem to be dominating the campaigns and media coverage so far.

Part of the reason may be that transportation ranks pretty low on voter concerns surveys. An annual survey conducted by Elway Research shows transportation barely registers with voters on the list of most important issues the state legislature should be addressing. Since 2009 it has been a very distant 6th, though between 2002 and 2008 transportation ranked in the top three in three different years (The Elway Poll, January 5, 2012, subscription only).

We transportation geeks at TID couldn’t stand the relative lack of attention in the campaign. So we created a twelve-question survey for the two main candidates, (former) Congressman Jay Inslee (D) (campaign link) and state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) (campaign link). To our delight both campaigns agreed to complete the questionnaire in spite of their very busy schedule.

Thursday we’ll publish the first story, with six of the twelve questions. Next week we’ll publish part two with the remaining six questions. A special thanks to BNSF Railway and Envirotac II who are sponsoring the series.

In the meantime, here’s a review of what Washington’s next Governor faces in transportation issues.


Washington’s transportation needs

The state’s population is projected to grow by roughly one million in the next decade, which will place greater demands upon our transportation network. The number of vehicle miles traveled each year is projected to reach 60 billion by 2020 and annual freight volumes are expected to triple by 2035. The number of passengers using transit across the state is expected to increase dramatically, particularly in the greater Everett-Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region.

In late 2011 a non-partisan committee of transportation interests and elected officials, “Connecting Washington“, studied the state’s transportation needs and finances. They recommended a ten-year, $21 billion multi-modal, state and local transportation improvements program, a prioritized program culled from the overall state and local improvements program estimated to cost $50 billion. In January 2012 the Governor proposed a two-year, $3.6 billion improvements program which the legislature reduced to about $90 million.

The Washington Transportation Commission concludes that as much as $175 to $200 billion may be necessary to meet statewide needs over the next 20 years. Of that total, nearly $41 billion is needs of counties, and nearly $29 billion is needs of cities.

  • Mega-projects under construction to reduce congestion, accommodate growth and improve safety are not fully funded (e.g., SR 520, I-90 Snoqualmie Pass, US 395 North Spokane Corridor, I-405 Corridor).
  • Mega-projects not yet under construction – which are needed to reduce congestion, accommodate growth and improve safety – will not get started (SR 167 extension, SR 509 extension, I-5 Columbia River Crossing, SR 522/US 2 Corridor).
  • The state ferries financial plan is not sustainable over the long term.
  • Unfunded road and rail bottlenecks will further erode the competitiveness of many Washington ports.
  • Aging roads and deferred investment will result in pavement deteriorating from 94% good/fair to less than 70%. (July 2011 presentation to Connecting Washington)

Washington citizens on the state of transportation

In 2011 the State Transportation Commission conducted two extensive surveys – one scientific poll and the other an open, public, “y’all come” survey (*see below for details).

Some of the results:

  • 40% of scientific survey respondents and 60% of public respondents believe the state does not have enough revenue “to keep the transportation system safe effective and properly maintained.”
  • 59% of scientific respondents and 77% of public respondents would support raising some transportation taxes and fees. (Note: when one reviews the details, it could be argued the support is more for taxes and fees that others would pay [e.g., tolling, electric vehicle fees] versus a gas tax increase.)
  • Over 75% of respondents in both surveys rank maintenance and the most important investment, a wide margin over expanding roads, or increasing transit. There is also a clear focus on regional needs such as year round (aka all weather) roads (rural areas), ferries (Puget Sound) and transit (urban/suburban areas, but also supported in rural communities).
  • About 75% of the respondents in both surveys give a “C” or worse grade for the state and local transportation system.
  • Over 50% of respondents in both surveys give the state a “C” or better grade for spending transportation dollars responsibly.
  • Over 60% of respondents in both surveys give the state a “C” or better grade for completing projects on schedule.

Learn more about survey results at this Commission webpage.

When the new Governor is sworn in next January, he will have more public opinion to consult. Beginning this fall the State Transportation Commission will be conducting more statewide transportation surveys. They are building a survey panel of Washington State residents who will receive the surveys via email and will be able to take them online. So far over 7,000 people have signed up for the panel and the goal is to reach 15,000 by this fall.

The Commission is also going to be launching online discussion forums throughout the state, where participants can post ideas and comments as well as vote on posted ideas on transportation topics like funding, transit, ferries, tolling, etc. It’s a new way of getting widespread input from citizens across the state. This new outreach program is collectively referred to as the “Voice of Washington State” and will be launched at the end of June.

*The study utilized two different sampling methodologies. In the more scientific methodology, a total of 100,000 postcards were sent to a random cross section of all state household of which 5,518 completed the survey. During the same time frame the public at large was invited to answer the same questions of which 4,240 completed the survey. Because this was open to anyone who wanted to take it, the results are not considered scientifically valid but it is worth noting that the results of both survey samples were very similar in many instances.

Washington’s complex, multimodal transportation network

  • Seventy-five ports, located in 33 of the 39 counties, support businesses and thousands of direct and indirect jobs. A 2007 report estimated ports contribute about $500 million in state and local taxes annually. The Ports of Tacoma and Seattle alone account for over 260,000 jobs (2007 Container Ports Initiative for the Next Washington) (note that ports are not under the state’s jurisdiction);
  • The State DOT oversees about 8.5% of the state’s roads (including the interstate) which carries about 56% of the vehicle miles traveled. Over 3,600 bridges and structures (WSDOT State…);
  • City streets represent about 21% of the state’s roads and carry about 27% of all vehicle miles traveled; cities over 25,000 have maintenance and operational responsibilities for about 2228 lane miles of State Highways; about 40% of city streets are in fair to poor condition (July 2011 Connecting Washington presentation);
  • County roads represent about 48% of the state’s roads and carry about 16% of vehicle miles traveled; nearly 700 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and need repairs or replacement (July 2011 presentation);
  • Thirty-one public transit systems provide 212 million passenger trips annually, reach 85% of the state’s population, including 4.8 million trips by individuals with special needs; state funding provides about 1% of transit funding (about 73% comes from sales and local tax, and about 13.5% comes from fares) (July 2011 presentation)
  • 3,600 miles of public and private rail moving 103 million tons of freight and 850,000 passengers (WSDOT State…) (excludes regional public agency commuter rail);
  • Seventeen state-operated airports and sixteen commercial airports support recreational and business travel, and freight and goods movement (WSDOT State…); and
  • Over 1000 miles of bike and pedestrian paths are in constant use (WSDOT State…).

Washington’s transportation funding

The 2011-13 state transportation budget is about $10 billion, which is roughly 13% of the state budget and includes the State Patrol and the Dept. of Licensing. The state’s contribution to cities, counties, and transit is about $1 million over those two years (local agencies also raise funding on their own).

Only eight cents of the state’s 37½-cent state gas tax is available for state maintenance, preservation, operations, and new projects. Eleven cents of the state gas tax goes to cities and counties for local roads. The remainder is dedicated to maintenance and preservation, debt service, and a handful of existing projects. Except for the occasional grant, the state’s share of federal funds is devoted almost exclusively to maintenance and preservation.

Both the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee (in 2009) and Connecting Washington (in 2011) recommended the following funding sources (among others) be increased or adopted, either by the legislature or a vote of the people.

  • Motor vehicle fuel tax (through indexing or other means)
  • Licensing and permit fees
  • Vehicle weight fees
  • Fees on electric and other high mileage vehicles

The Washington State Transportation Commission concurred with those recommendations and also recommended that tolling be considered. Connecting Washington also recommended expanding a number of local tax and fee options that could be enacted at the local level.


Washington’s recent investment in transportation

The 2003 and 2005 gas tax increases (5 cents and 9½ cents, respectively) provided $15.3 billion for transportation, included 421 projects, and supported an average of 10,000 jobs annually.

The 325 (77%) completed projects:

  • 87% were completed early or on time, and
  • 91% were on or under budget.
  • 74% of WSDOT’s highway program dollars are contracted to the private sector.

For another take on Washington’s transportation policy and funding issues, see the recent article “Potholes forever: the state’s transportation-funding impasse,” by Crosscut’s Dick Nelson.


State of Transportation (3.7mb PDF), Washington State Department of Transportation, March 2012

Transportation 101: Basic Facts (1.8mb PDF), Washington State Transportation Commission

Final Report Connecting Washington (1.9mb PDF) Connecting Washington, January 2012

The Elway Poll, January 5, 2012

Governor’s Container Ports Initiative: Recommendations of the Container Ports and Land Use Work Group and Appendices (2.7mb PDF) Governor Chris Gregoire, 2009

2007 Container Ports Initiative for the Next Washington (.5mb PDF), Governor Chris Gregoire, 2007


*** At BNSF, we believe it is good business and good citizenship to minimize our impact on the planet and to contribute to the long-term sustainability of every community we serve. Railroads are by far the most environmentally friendly mode of surface transportation, and BNSF is a leader in the protection of our air, land and water. Rail also provides a tremendous opportunity beyond fuel efficiency and sustainability: it reduces supply chain costs, allowing American businesses to be more competitive in the global market.  BNSF carries more than 40 percent of our nation’s freight, and what we transport touches nearly every individual in all walks of life: grain, soybeans, lumber, steel, plastic, ethanol, coal and more.   

We are proud to sponsor the upcoming dialogue with the candidates of the 2012 Washington Governor’s race.  A thoughtful question-and-answer format is a great way to cast light on our transportation issues and to examine in greater detail how our gubernatorial contenders would approach our transportation problems to build upon our state’s economy. ***

*** When rural public agencies and the defense industry need a more environmentally friendly and cost effective road surface that won’t rut, practically eliminates dust issues and will last indefinitely, they turn to Envirotac II (aka Rhino Snot).   It is the ultimate environmentally economic soil stabilization and dust control product on the market today. It is a high performance, low cost acrylic co-polymer that is easy to apply and environmentally safe. When applied to various soils or sands, it forms a clear, plastic and resin bond with soil particles. Rhino Snot creates a highly durable surface that is pliable and hard enough to minimize surface damage. Rhino Snot is effective in low plasticity soils, dust abatement (PM 10 compliance), sub-base and road stabilization, erosion control and hydro-seeding. Government studies have proven Rhino Snot to work better than organic resins, chlorides, lignosulfonates, asphalt and oil emulsions. Learn more from or are pleased to sponsor the series “Washington’s Next Governor Talks Transportation Policy and Funding.” ***