Opinion editorial by Rep. Hans Zeiger: Transportation reforms should be legislative priority

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Feb. 22, 2013

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Transportation reforms should be legislative priority

By Rep. Hans Zeiger

Besides education funding, the biggest issue the Legislature will deal with this session is that of financing our transportation system, from road maintenance and preservation, to freight mobility, to transit and ferries. This week, House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn unveiled an ambitious transportation revenue proposal. For a number of legislators in the South Sound, funding for the full completion of Highway 167 to the Port of Tacoma is essential. But more than just money is needed. We need real transportation reform in Washington State. 

Transportation projects cost too much and take too long to complete. Even when adjusted for inflation, the 520 Bridge project is set to cost 20 times more than when it was originally built in the early 1960s. Our transit and ferry systems lack public confidence. There are five reforms the Legislature can make this session to win trust and get more out of our precious gas tax dollars. 

First, we need to move forward with public-private partnerships for transportation projects. Last year the Joint Transportation Committee concluded a lengthy study of public-private partnerships (P3s) and how they might succeed in Washington. P3s only work for certain types of projects, but they are an innovative way to attract private capital, and we should add them to our state’s infrastructure planning toolbox.

We should implement the Washington State Transportation Commission’s recommendation to proceed with non-highway P3s, such as ferry, transit, and port facilities. The Washington State Department of Transportation already has a small P3 with AeroVironment called the West Coast Green Highway project for electric vehicle charging stations along I-5.

Second, we need to streamline shoreline permitting. Shoreline permitting is an important part of environmental stewardship, but it can result in expensive and unnecessary delays that do nothing to protect the environment. Last year the Legislature gave the go-ahead for construction on the 520 Bridge despite five pending appeals to the Shoreline Hearings Board. Had the Legislature not intervened, the cost of project delays could have been up to $165 million.

This year, transit advocates are taking the next steps to ease the shoreline permitting process with House Bill 1794, which would allow Sound Transit to request expedited hearings and faster decisions. The Legislature should also allow speedier permitting for critical bridge replacement projects such as the Meridian Street Bridge in Puyallup, the main link between Puyallup and Highway 167 that was built in 1925 and nearly closed to truck traffic two years ago because of its condition.

Third, we should exempt transportation projects from state sales taxes. We shouldn’t have to pay sales taxes from the state’s transportation budget right into the operating budget to fund government programs that have nothing to do with transportation. In 2010, WSDOT spent $62 million on sales taxes for capital construction projects. Investment in jobs is a better way to generate general fund revenue. The Port of Tacoma estimates that the completion of Highway 167 could create as many as 79,000 new jobs. This economic growth means improved general fund revenues from other sources.

Fourth, we should heed a recent State Auditor recommendation to improve citizen oversight of Sound Transit. Sound Transit is too large and important not to be subject to elected leadership; its current board is a mix of various local officials who are appointed but not elected to the board. Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-Covington) has proposed House Bill 1877 to elect the Sound Transit board of directors in five districts. This will improve public input and accountability for our state’s largest transit agency.

Finally, we need to make traffic congestion relief one of the state’s transportation policy goals. I am sponsoring House Bill 1921 to do just that. The state recognizes economic vitality, preservation, safety, mobility (“to improve the predictable movement of goods and people throughout Washington State”), environment, and stewardship as goals—but not congestion relief. Movement of traffic needs to be more than predictable; it needs to be free flowing.

If voters are ever going to approve additional revenues for transportation projects, they’ll need to know that the Legislature is doing everything it can to lower the cost of projects and hold our transportation bureaucracy accountable. The 2013 session is a great opportunity for bipartisan reforms to move our state forward.

Rep. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) serves on the House Transportation Committee.

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