While Washington’s finances continue to recover and benefit from a better-than-expected revenue forecast and one-time federal money, the state’s transportation funding sources continue to languish.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the collection of gas tax, has been in decline. Gas tax revenue waned only further as Washingtonians began to stay home to combat the pandemic. In addition, other sources of transportation revenue, like tolling, rail, and ferry fare revenue, dropped dramatically.

The financially strapped 2021-23 Transportation Budget, Senate Bill 5165, will have a public hearing today in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Adding to the challenge are the results of the latest transportation revenue forecast which projected a dip in incoming transportation funding in the neighborhood of $1.1 billion over the next four years.

“Washington’s infrastructure needs are badly outpacing the funding that’s available,” said Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Steve Hobbs. “Every community in our state has projects big and small that deserve funding. We have a $3.1 billion legal obligation to fund fish passage barrier removal. We have needs in terms of preservation and maintenance, and pollution reduction projects throughout our state.

“Without passage of a transportation revenue package, we won’t be able to meet these needs.”

Approximately $1 billion from the recently passed American Rescue Plan will help fill funding gaps in the 21-23 transportation budget. Of that one-time federal money, $600 million will be used to backfill pandemic-related revenue losses, while about $400 million is slated for water infrastructure investments to remove fish culverts. However, we are still waiting for the US Department of the Treasury to issue guidance on whether investments in water infrastructure include spending on fish culverts.

In addition to those federal funds, $142.9 million from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), the federal Covid-19 relief package passed in December, will also go toward fish culvert removal. And $124 million in CRRSA funds will go toward addressing the shortfall in funding for Puget Sound ferry operations.

“The federal money is enough to get by, but in order to fully meet the state’s transportation needs, getting by with one-time federal money simply doesn’t cut it,” Hobbs said. “Our communities expect and require more than the bare minimum.”

Hobbs described the transportation budget writing process as taking a “do no harm” approach. He said that safety, preservation and maintenance were at the top of the list, as well as keeping projects from the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation investment package on track. Meeting the state’s court-ordered obligation concerning fish culverts also remained a top priority.

Despite the fiscal constraints, there are some modest new investments in the transportation budget including:

  • $5.5 million in federal funds for the new Forward Drive road usage charge (RUC) project overseen by the Transportation Commission. As the transition away from fossil fuels continues, this project will research key policy areas related to a RUC program. That includes assessing the impacts on a RUC program due to changing driving habits in the future, an equity analysis to make sure people aren’t disproportionately impacted, updating and assessing emerging mileage reporting methods, and determining opportunities to reduce the cost of collection.
  • $100,000 for WSDOT to work with the Department of Commerce to develop statewide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) targets and a process for geography specific VMT targets based on statewide targets.
  • $1.0 million in additional funding for the Pre-Apprenticeship & Supportive Services (PASS) grant program to recruit and retain members from underrepresented communities in construction trades. This investment pushes funding for this program to $3 million for this biennium.
  • Funding is maintained at $726.4 million in the 2021-23 biennium for fish passage barrier removal using a variety of federal funds, savings from Connecting Washington projects to be deposited into the Transportation Future Funding Program Account, and state funds.

Also included is funding for the Joint Transportation Committee:

  • $220,000 will go toward studying the Department of Transportation’s role in broadband service expansion efforts.
  • $250,000 will study new options for payment of vehicle fees and taxes including spreading out the cost with monthly or quarterly payment options. The study must also provide options to reduce impacts on communities of color, low-income households, vulnerable populations, and displaced communities.

In total, funding for the 2021-23 transportation budget is $10.7B (without the $1B in ARPA funds). For 2019-21 the total is $9.08B, a decrease of almost $1.3 billion from the 2020 enacted supplemental budget. This significant decrease is a result of approximately $1.2 billion that was reappropriated from the 2019-21 to the 2021-23 biennium for delayed capital project activity.

“The best thing about this transportation budget is how well it reflects the urgent need for infrastructure investments,” Hobbs said. “One-time federal money only postpones the need. Delaying action on infrastructure investments makes it more expensive.

“I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus, across chambers and across the aisle to get this done. Throw party and geography out the window — every community in our state would benefit from infrastructure investment.

“As Washingtonians continue to fight back from the pandemic, transportation investments would serve as a monumental boost in terms of jobs and overall quality of life. My own Forward Washington plan would meet that need.”

You can watch today’s Transportation Committee public hearing here today live at 4 p.m.