Commentary by State Sens. John Braun and Ann Rivers
Washington’s transportation system is in major need of a fix.
Cowlitz County/Southwest Washington taxpayers depend on the state to maintain functioning highways they can use for commuting and shipping their products. Without good roads, the local economy would grind to a halt.
Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation has not been a good steward of taxpayers’ money.
To replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Washington and Oregon, the department championed a costly Columbia River Crossing with such low clearance that it would block some significant commercial river traffic. It mishandled the State Route 520 bridge project, in King County, so badly that there are now more than $400 million in potential cost overruns, including concrete pontoons that don’t float.
Meanwhile, the roads this region depends upon have been left in the lurch.
Back in 2005, Cowlitz County was promised a replacement for the aging Abernathy Creek Bridge on State Route 4. The DOT rates this bridge, built in 1930, as “functionally obsolete.” The cost to replace it is $10 million; but we have yet to see a cent toward fixing this problem.
I-5, of course, is the most important traffic artery in Cowlitz County and all of Western Washington. We need to protect this essential thoroughfare from flooding in the Chehalis River Valley, which has shut down the highway down more than once in recent years. The Legislature took an important step forward in protecting I-5 from floods when it included Chehalis River Valley flood- control improvements in the state’s new capital budget. While this moves us in the right direction, there is still much work to be done, and the flood-control project is still not fully funded.
Although there were many projects and potential projects on the table, the Legislature left Olympia earlier this year without approving a transportation funding package. Unfortunately, the DOT’s history of mismanagement did not inspire enough confidence from us or other lawmakers in the Legislature.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s stubborn insistence on including the deeply flawed Columbia River Crossing design project in any transportation funding package with the threat of a veto put the final nail in the coffin of even the possibility of a new transportation package.
We, in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, share taxpayers’ concerns about how their money is being spent on transportation. This fall we are meeting with voters throughout the state (the Southwest Washington meeting is from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 7 at the DOT regional headquarters in Vancouver, at 11018 NE 51st Circle) to hear your ideas of about how we can get more bang for our buck from the transportation system.
We know this broken system can and must be fixed.
It’s long past time for an independent review of projects, and we can’t shy away from real consequences and changes if things go wrong. Before more precious taxpayers’ money goes into the transportation system, we need to fix it.
We need to start thinking creatively when it comes to transportation. Instead of reflexively proposing increases in the gas tax, as the House Democrats and Gov. Inslee did earlier this year, let’s find ways to make transportation more efficient, freeing up money for projects that have been neglected or underfunded.
Making taxpayers’ money go further in transportation is far from impossible. We need to seriously look at reforms like streamlining environmental permitting, prevailing-wage and apprenticeship requirements; returning the sales tax paid on transportation construction to the transportation budget; and using Environmental Stewardship Account funds to address stormwater issues.
These and other reforms need to be on the table.
Washington’s taxpayers deserve better than they’ve gotten from the DOT. An overhaul of the way this agency operates is long overdue.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, represents the 20th Legislative District and is chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee. He is president of Braun Northwest, a family-owned company that builds emergency vehicles. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, represents the 18th Legislative District and serves as Senate majority whip.