NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, January 10th, 2022

NPI’s polling shows Washingtonians want the state’s next transportation package to be safety and climate focused, not car-centric

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.
Visualization of NPI's transportation philosophy poll finding

Visu­al­iza­tion of our poll find­ing on the direc­tion vot­ers want leg­is­la­tors to take with a 2022 trans­porta­tion package

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.

More infor­ma­tion about the survey’s method­ol­o­gy is avail­able here.

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?

ANSWERS:

  • 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.

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