Rendering of I-395 interchange with pond. (WSDOT)
Rendering of I-395 in Spokane. (WSDOT)

Yesterday was the last day of session for the Washington State Legislature and in one of their final acts legislators funded a bevy of transportation projects–primarily highway focused–to the tune of $10.4 billion. Governor Jay Inslee had put many projects on hold in November following the wake of passage of Initiative 976.

By capping state car tabs and licensing fees at $30, I-976 decimated the budgets of local transportation agencies and the state department alike. That said, an appeal brought by a number of those agencies did win an injunction delaying those cuts until the constitutionality question is answered–and it may end up being the Washington Supreme Court that gets the last word. The Governor has ordered state car tabs be held in escrow until the courts decide in case the funds must to be paid out in refunds to taxpayers.

In the meantime, Senator Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who is the senate transportation chair, said “a little bit of budget magic” shifting around existing funds was sufficient to resurrect those projects from limbo. Senator Hobbs has insisted that next year a new revenue source must be tapped for his next wave of pet highway projects–headlined by billion-dollar-plus replacement for the Highway 2 trestle in his home district–and he’s floated a carbon tax.

Simultaneously, Hobbs has opposed a clean fuel standard–which was a priority for climate groups that failed to pass this session. Hobbs’ opposition, given his leadership role, may help explain that failure. The clean fuel standard, which California was the first state to adopt, would have greatly reduced Washington’s carbon footprint, which is dominated by the transportation sector.

The wave of highway projects let loose yesterday was headlined by another billion-plus project: the North Spokane Corridor, creating an US Route 395 freeway bypass of Spokane. Another project will squeeze an extra northbound I-5 lane in Downtown Seattle between Seneca Street and Olive Way. Whether rearranging deck chairs will be enough to alleviate titanic I-5 congestion seems highly dubious.

Likewise, Spokane’s need for a new freeway seems questionable. But highway building has a tendency to persevere no matter the merits.

Among the authorizations were some non-highway funding, but overall the Washington State Legislature did little this session to address its woeful imbalance when it comes to funding car infrastructure versus transit, walking, rolling, and biking–which seem to remain afterthoughts.

“The budget deal includes some grant funding for transit for people with disabilities and for green-transportation programs,” The Seattle Times’ Mike Lindblom wrote. “It did not fund repairs to the MV Elwha, effectively retiring the aging ferry. The boat is in need of significant maintenance work so retiring it helps cut costs but also further stretches the taxed state ferry fleet.”

If road-building projects were lackluster on their own merits, Senator Curtis King (R-Yakima) at least defended them as job creators, and pitched it as a sort of stimulus package to ward off a coronavirus-triggered recession.

Some legislators may not be aware that transit projects also create jobs at much lower cost to the environment. But it’s high time we remind them and force concerted climate action. We need a Green New Deal to invest in the future rather than an asphalt pyramid scheme to bankrupt it.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.