Today, the Washington State Legislature is convening its 2022 session, which is expected to run sixty days and must adjourn, in accordance with the Constitution, no later than March 10th, 2021. High on the session “to do” list for many lawmakers, newspaper publishers, and advocacy groups is enactment of a new transportation package to address the state’s mobility needs.
To quote from a few of the recent statements we’ve seen:
- “The Legislature has delayed far too long in passing a meaningful infrastructure improvement package. After talks broke down early in 2021 and remained at an impasse all year, lawmakers must redouble efforts to make a long-term investment in the state’s bridges, roads and transit.” — The Seattle Times editorial board (January 9th, 2022)
- “Washington state legislators are long overdue to pass a transportation package — but we don’t need just any kind of investment. We need a transformative approach to transportation that meets our needs for health, safety, and affordability, and addresses climate, social, and economic justice.” — It Takes Transportation Coalition Manifesto
- “The majority of Washington’s current transportation revenue sources are regressive, and are restricted to being spent on highways. The transportation package must rely on progressive, climate friendly revenue sources that do not disproportionately burden low-income and marginalized communities.” — Excerpt from a resolution adopted by the executive board of the King County Democrats at its November 2021 meeting
Back in November, in anticipation of the coming session, our pollster asked a large sample of likely 2022 Washington State voters what they wanted to see in a new transportation package. All recent packages have been highway heavy, with the lion’s share of dollars devoted to infrastructure for cars, with transit getting mere crumbs. The Legislature did give Sound Transit new revenue options in 2015 when it passed Connecting Washington for financing transit at the regional level, but it did not substantively invest in transit using state-level dollars.
Seven years later, much has changed. We’re in the midst of a horrific pandemic, Republicans no longer control the Senate, and the toll from climate damage has gotten much worse. Interest in passing another transportation package is mounting. But what kind of package will it be? And what do Washingtonians want their elected representatives to prioritize at this critical moment?
We decided to ask.
We framed the choice as one between a safety and climate focused package that shores up existing roads and bridges, plus invests in fish passage and transit, or a package that focuses on expanding car capacity, whether in the form of new highways, new lanes, or new ramps. The latter, as mentioned, would be in keeping with tradition, while the former would represent a new direction.
In our question, we did not argue that one approach was superior to another or discuss what the Legislature has done historically. Our goal was to simply to ascertain where people are and what they’re looking for from their lawmakers.
By a three-to-one margin, voters said that they wanted a safety and climate focused package as opposed to a car-centric one.
- 60% of respondents said they want a transportation package that prioritizes fixing unsafe bridges, improving fish passage, resurfacing deteriorating roads, and making big public transit investments.
- Only 19% of respondents said they want to prioritize adding capacity for cars by building new highways, widening existing highways with new lanes, and adding or lengthening ramps.
- 21% were not sure.
Our survey of 909 likely 2022 Washington State voters was in the field from Wednesday, November 10th through Thursday, November 11th, 2021.
It utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines (50%) and text message answers from cell phone only respondents (50%).
The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute and has a margin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
Here’s the full text of the question that we asked and the responses again:
QUESTION: If the Washington State Legislature approves a new transportation funding package in the 2022 legislative session, do you think it should prioritize fixing unsafe bridges, improving fish passage, resurfacing deteriorating roads, and making big public transit investments, or should it prioritize adding capacity for cars by building new highways, widening existing highways with new lanes, and adding or lengthening ramps?
- Think the Legislature should prioritize fixing unsafe bridges, improving fish passage, resurfacing deteriorating roads, and making big public transit investments in a 2022 transportation funding package: 60%
- Think the Legislature should prioritize adding capacity for cars by building new highways, widening existing highways with new lanes, and adding or lengthening ramps: 19%
- Not sure: 21%
You’ll notice that in the question, we used the adjective “big” in front of “transit investments.” That’s because we wanted to find out if voters desire a truly multimodal approach, one in which transit receives a significant percentage of the dollars in a state-level transportation package as opposed to just a small fraction. The presence of the word “big” is intended to signify that we’re talking about a package that puts transit front and center in an unprecedented way.
We consider fish passage improvements, fixing unsafe bridges, and resurfacing deteriorating roads to also be essential to a successful transportation package, which is why they are all grouped together in one of the choices. Safety and sustainability go hand in hand and shouldn’t be pitted against each other.
Adding capacity for cars, on the other hand, doesn’t square with those other goals. It costs a lot of money while failing to reduce congestion or pollution.
Yet that is the route we’ve taken with past packages.
If we continue to prioritize building new highways, lanes, and ramps, then there simply won’t be resources for seismic upgrades to bridges, removal of fish barriers, road maintenance, or more, better, and higher frequency transit service.
Infinite dollars are simply not available.
Senator Marko Liias, the new Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, declared last week that he won’t support increasing the gas tax as part of a 2022 transportation package. Past packages have relied heavily on gas tax increases to supply the revenue needed to pay for the projects legislators have appropriated.
But it seems this one will not.
An upside to the position Senator Liias has staked out is that the Constitution restricts the use of gas tax revenue to “highway purposes.”
By funding the 2022 package with other revenue options, the Legislature will have more freedom to allocate dollars to transit and improving fish passage.
Whether or not the Legislature can reach agreement on a package before March 10th remains to be seen. It won’t be easy. But legislators should make a genuine effort to try to forge an agreement, and not punt until 2023.
We have underfunded ferries, transits, sidewalks, bike paths, and multimodal transportation infrastructure for far too long. Meanwhile, we have deferred basic maintenance and seismic upgrades to our existing roads and bridges.
It’s time to listen to the voters and authorize the mobility investments that will help Washingtonians get where they need to go, safely and sustainably.