Mar 8, 2022
On this midweek show, Ryan Packer, senior reporter at The Urbanist, stops by to cover the ins and outs of the $16 billion Move Ahead Washington transportation package currently moving through the State Legislature. Ryan and Crystal talk about revenue for the transportation budget, including interstate drama over a proposed fuel export tax. They then jump into details of what the package funds over the next 16 years in terms of public transit, pedestrian safety, free transit for youth, and highway expansion.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Democrats Unveil Transformative ‘Move Ahead Washington’ Transportation Package” by Ryan Packer from The Urbanist: https://www.theurbanist.org/2022/02/09/democrats-unveil-transformative-move-ahead-washington-transportation-package/
“Proposed tax on WA fuel exports scorned by neighboring states” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/proposed-tax-on-wa-fuel-exports-scorned-by-neighboring-states/
“Top House democrat proposes removing fuel export tax from transportation package” by KING5 Staff from KING5: https://www.king5.com/article/news/politics/state-politics/fuel-export-tax-washington-house-jake-fey/281-592bd977-3174-428d-8b67-d2626de361d8
“Washington House jettisons exported fuel tax proposal that angered neighboring states” by Tom Banse from Northwest News Network: https://www.opb.org/article/2022/03/02/washington-state-house-exported-fuel-tax-proposal-neighboring-states/
Interstate Bridge Replacement Program: https://www.interstatebridge.org/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I'd like to welcome Ryan Packer to the program, who's a senior reporter at The Urbanist focused on transportation through the lens of safety and climate. Their work also appears in Seattle Bike Blog and Bike Portland. And so, we're going to be talking about the transportation package today. There's a lot in it, and we all need to get around at some point or another, and whether we're in cars and mad about traffic, or how inconvenient it may be sometimes to get from Point A to Point B, or we're riding the bus or the train or walking or biking or in a wheelchair or using an assisted device; the design of our transportation system, from our sidewalks to our roads, to bike facilities, impact how we all get around and the quality of our communities and how our communities look. So, we definitely are excited to have this conversation today.
I just want to go over, before we get to this conversation, what is in this package, and we'll be talking about it in more detail. So, the transportation package that is currently being worked on and finalized is the Move Ahead Washington transportation package. It's a $16 billion proposal funding a suite of transportation projects intended to be completed over the next 16 years through 2038.
It significantly increases the amount of state funding allocated toward transit, walking, and biking investments. It funds fare-free transit for people under 18 years old, invests a $150 million in advancing high speed rail investments, and active transportation investments total nearly $1.3 billion - and active transportation being walking or rolling. There's $146 million in grants for cities to remake existing streets to create space for people to walk and roll via the Complete Streets investments - that's if we're talking about things like Aurora Avenue or in the Kent Valley, connectivity for bikes and walking throughout the corridors - things like that are what those are funding. $50 million would go to Connecting Communities grants, those right there.
Highway expansion projects received $4 billion, the largest expenditure being a $1 billion allocation to the Interstate Bridge Replacement project, which will expand I-5 and replace an aging bridge, but also expand it along a five-mile stretch on either side of the Oregon and Washington border.
Transit investments include $30 million for three Community Transit Swift line expansions: the Silver Line, Gold Line, and an extension of the existing Green Line. $8 million for the King County Metro RapidRide I Line project, specifically for the segment in Auburn. $7 million for upgrades to King County Metro's RapidRide H Line project in Burien along Ambaum Boulevard, and $5 million for electrification at King County Metro's South Base. Ferries receive $1.5 billion, that's sorely needed. Highway maintenance and preservation receives $3 billion, and fish barrier removal gets a $2.4 billion allocation.
That's a lot. We'll be talking about the details, but just wanted to tee that up to let you know what's in this package, and now we'll proceed with Ryan. Welcome.
[00:04:03] Ryan Packer: So great to be here.
[00:04:05] Crystal Fincher: If people are trying to inform themselves about transportation in the State of Washington, it is hard to do that without reading your work. You have some of the most comprehensive reporting and coverage in the state - consistently following meetings, whether it's Sound Transit, things happening in the legislature, locally. I have certainly been informed by your coverage for quite some time. It's an essential read, encourage everyone to make sure they're on it. What was your path to covering transportation?
[00:04:38] Ryan Packer: Well, I think ultimately it was trying to get around Seattle and realizing the barriers that are invisible and very visible when you're trying to do that. It was the path of starting with, why is a bike lane design like this? Why can't our streets look differently? And that just took me on a path to going down the rabbit hole as I usually - it took me down a path of going down the rabbit hole of figuring out all of the aspects of the transportation ecosystem in Washington, the commissions and boards, and all the levels of government that play a small part in how everyone gets around every single day.
[00:05:26] Crystal Fincher: It makes sense. There's a lot to it. And I read somewhere, I think it was a tweet sometime. They were like, "Nothing will radicalize you quicker than riding a bike as a form of transit." This is not an exaggeration - almost all of the people I know who bike regularly, especially those who are commuting, have been hit by a car before. Some extremely seriously injured, and some moderately injured. Really unsafe for people to be getting around in modes that are outside of cars, and a lot of work needing to be done in many areas to make our streets safe - for people who are walking, or rolling, or on their bikes, or getting to the bus stop in a safe way - is a challenging thing. And so, I appreciate your coverage on what has gone into the outcomes that we currently see, and what is going into the effort to hopefully change it, and what's holding those efforts back.
There's a lot of that being talked about right now at the state level. As we're talking about this, this is Wednesday, March 2nd - probably be hearing this a little later. But the transportation package is really taking shape, leading up to the end of the legislative session on March 10th. So, what is in this package? I guess, an overview of it, and then we can talk about, in more detail, the different sections of it.
[00:06:54] Ryan Packer: I think it helps to take a step back and think about what a transportation package is. It's a thing that I think exists in a lot of states, but in Washington it seems to get a lot of attention. But it's really a promise to build certain projects over a period of time. And what we always do in Washington is usually pair that with a raise in revenue. And so, you're passing a bill that raises revenue for the next 16 years in this case, which is the expected lifespan of this Move Ahead Washington package. And it's paired with a commitment by the legislature that, "This is what we're going to do with that money."
And so, this package is pretty different than a lot of the packages that have been passed by the legislature in the past, namely that a big component of it is the Climate Commitment Act, which the legislature passed in 2021. And so, that is expected to raise around a little bit more than $5 billion through the middle of 2037, basically. So, over the next 16 years. And the requirement in that law was actually that that money had to be spent on things that decarbonize transportation, reduce transportation emissions. And so, they can't actually build new roads or use that money for preservation and maintenance of existing highways. It's already been set aside for things like active transportation, electrifying the ferry fleet, transit. And so, they already had that money coming. It was set to come in whether they passed a package or not, but this solidifies what they're going to actually spend that on.
And then they come in and they add additional aspects to it. They have diverted $2 billion from the state's operating fund, which is a thing that hasn't really been done very much in the past. It's a pretty unprecedented diversion of money that could be spent on many other things in the budget. Traditionally, transportation projects have been paid for with transportation dollars, i.e., gas tax money, license fees, user fees as they're called. But this is an unprecedented diversion. Unlike when they usually do a transportation package and raise the gas tax - per the Washington State Constitution, all gas tax money has to be spent on highway purposes. But in this case, there's no such strings attached to the money. And so, that's a brief intro to sort of the revenue side.
Because the legislature decided, and I say the legislature - I should say, Senate Democrats and House Democrats decided that they were not going to raise gas prices, given all that's happening in the country right now, via a increase in our gas tax, our 49 cent gas tax. They instead developed a plan to modify our export credit system, which would essentially amount to a 6 cent per gallon export tax on all fuel that leaves the state. About 40% of the fuel that's refined at the five refineries in Washington State leaves and it's not, as they say, captured by the transportation system in a way that in-state gas taxes are. And so, this was framed as a way to capture that revenue. It was also framed as a way to mitigate the impacts from those five refineries: Anacortes, Tacoma, which have really real impacts.
[00:11:06] Crystal Fincher: And those are massive impacts. Certainly any conversation about addressing climate change in the long term, about reducing our carbon usage, has to involve those refineries, and at a minimum doing a better job of mitigating and fully accounting for the impact that they're all having, and mitigating that impact and hopefully working towards lessening that impact directly.
[00:11:36] Ryan Packer: And so, that's a compelling argument in favor of charging exports on fuel more since most of it leaves the state. The problem is that there wasn't really a compelling nexus shown between the expected $2 billion that we raise by that fuel export tax over 16 years, and what is being done to actually mitigate those impacts. And so, I feel like that was one obvious gap in the logic for the fuel export tax. 90% of the fuel used in Oregon comes from Washington. And so, that became a huge point of contention. The Governor of Oregon, Oregon legislature is very upset about this - essentially describing it as a defacto increase in their gas tax. I just want to note that any state with a gas tax that's at Washington's level or higher wouldn't have paid any fuel tax. So, Oregon could have actually raised their gas tax to the same level and kept all of the money from the export tax, but that wasn't very much discussed either.
And so, that was a lot of political pressure. Alaska, Idaho joined in on trying to pressure the House and Senate Democrats to remove that export tax. Last night, during their hours-long debate on the House floor, they ended up doing so. So, the House version of the bill which passed close to midnight last night didn't include it. It was replaced with a diversion from the Public Works Trust Fund, which does not really make a lot of people any more happy since that money is used to fund things like sewer and water projects and rural areas all around the state as a rotating loan program. And a lot of people, especially leaders in small cities and towns, are pretty unhappy about that swap and maybe would've preferred to keep the export tax.
[00:13:51] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, a really interesting conversation there. I think sometimes a lot of people think, "Oh, it's a rural area. There are small towns. Totally, they're going to be against that tax." But I think people underestimate how far behind a number of those smaller cities and towns are in that infrastructure maintenance and improvement needs. Some of them, like critical water infrastructure that they're dealing with, other items, and that's long been a point of discussion with cities to the legislature and rural areas and towns with the legislature. So, I certainly hope that that is addressed because we do need a solution that works for the entire state.
How has the conversation about gas taxes evolved to this point? I know previously the gas tax has been heavily relied on and thinking, "Well, this is the most appropriate method to fund all of our transportation needs. We're directly taxing a transportation item." But one of the things that's happening is as we are increasing reliance on electric vehicles, as more people continue to take transit around, there is less revenue coming from the gas tax because less gas is being used. So, that's a declining revenue stream in the long-term, not something that can be counted on to sustainably fund what we have. Has that been part of what's created the motivation to find alternative revenue structures like these other taxes?
[00:15:30] Ryan Packer: I think in part, it definitely has, but just last session, both the House and the Senate were poised to raise the gas tax - the House version by quite a lot. So, I really think that primarily the move away from the gas tax has been driven by the national conversation, in addition to, like I said, that revenue that's becoming available through the Climate Commitment Act. There's also money from the federal infrastructure bill that's in this as well, and some COVID relief dollars as well. And so, I think ultimately it's just a question of the fact that we don't have to raise gas taxes in an election year when we have this revenue available, particularly again from the general fund, which is seeing a big turnaround in revenue projections. The transportation sector is, and the gas tax projections, are actually not rebounding anywhere near as quickly as the revenue sources that feed the general fund.
[00:16:40] Crystal Fincher: In this negotiation, what do you see coming next? Does it look like this is in trouble? Does it look like the House version is going to prevail? Any ideas on what lies ahead?
[00:16:52] Ryan Packer: I think the export tax is likely dead. The Public Works Trust Fund being its replacement seems fairly certain at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Senate Democrats try and find another source for that back filling. It's already going to leave a hole of around $500 million over that 16 years. And so with the House version having passed last night, they do have to go into conference and hash things out. But ultimately, I don't think there's going to be too many surprises before the end of the session next week, and most of the plan is now baked solid.
[00:17:38] Crystal Fincher: In terms of what this is actually funding, what does it fund? What are people getting out of this package?
[00:17:45] Ryan Packer: So, let's start with the Climate Commitment Act dollars I mentioned that have to go toward decarbonizing transportation. So, this is going to be the single largest infusion of dollars from the state level toward public transit in at least three decades. And so, that's pretty big for public transit advocates, people who like to get people onto transit, which I would put myself in that category. And so, the lion's share of that money is coming in the form of a new program called Transit Support Grants. Traditionally, the federal government and the state government haven't really funded the dollars to keep buses running. They often will give grants to bus companies, transit agencies to buy new buses or do a capital improvement that gives you a new transit corridor or that sort of thing; but they haven't really invested in the actual dollars to keep buses on the roads. And now we're at a point where the level of frequency of local bus service in Seattle is incredibly different than it is in Tacoma right now, with very few bus routes even running 15 minutes or better.
So, that has been the legacy of Tim Eyman. I know you talked a little bit about this in your interview with Derek Young, it was very enlightening in terms of the history of disinvestment in public transit - relying on these local dollars that not every community is able to raise. And so, this is going to balance that a little bit. Like I said, the state really hasn't done this at all. And so, the level of state support that Washington currently gives to transit agencies around the entire state is around $100 million a year - fluctuates a little bit, but that's all that they get from the state. And this represents, if you divide the number of years for the $1.4 billion in the Transit Support Grants by the 16 years it's expected to be, you're going to get around $90. So, essentially it's a doubling of state support for transit, which is pretty huge.
And it's especially going to be impactful for the smaller transit agencies. There's a stipulation in the bill that no agency can get over 35% of the grants. That's in order to prevent something like King County Metro - in 2019, King County Metro saw two out of every three bus rides in the entire state. And so, if you were going to divide it by ridership, King County would suck up all the money. And so, there's a lever that lets them only get 35% at max of the grants. Terry White, the GM of Metro, has said that they expect to get around $640 million over 16 years - that's about their operating budget for one year. But it's going to be a lot more for the smaller agencies.
So, they're expecting to spend around $1.2 billion on things like pedestrian safety programs, Safe Routes to Schools, Complete Streets programs, and some specific projects that the legislature actually called out - notably a $50 million expenditure, just the single largest earmark in the whole program to remake Aurora Avenue in Seattle, one of the most deadly streets in the entire City. And so, that's great to see. But like I said, most of that money is coming in the form of grants. So since 2005, Washington has had a program where cities and towns can apply for either Safe Routes to School program projects, or bike and pedestrian focused safety projects, usually in the $500,000-$1,000,000 range of cost, maybe a little bit more sometimes. Since 2005, the state has had about $250 million available for that. And this essentially should around double that over the next 16 years, depending on how much the legislature decides to actually allocate. So, around 55% of all the cities and towns in Washington State have never received one of these grants. So, only 45% of the cities in the entire state, and only around half of the counties have ever actually either been able to apply or actually received an award. So, this will essentially allow a lot more cities to be able to access that money.
[00:23:26] Crystal Fincher: What does this do for high speed rail?
[00:23:30] Ryan Packer: So, the high speed rail money in the package includes some money right up front to keep the project alive, and then it also includes $150 million set-aside to be able to access any federal grants that might come our way. That's obviously a long way from construction of any projects, but it would be a big step if we were able to access that and unlock any federal dollars that could be able to be used for the project. But we're still a long way from really seeing what that money is actually going to be used for.
[00:24:20] Crystal Fincher: Okay. And did I see that there is free transit for youth included in this bill?
[00:24:27] Ryan Packer: Yes. Good question. So, the free transit is tied to those transit service grants that I mentioned. And so, that's one condition of receiving any state operating subsidy for transit is you have to make your fares free for riders under 18. If you're already providing free transit through a school district, or I know Seattle currently pays for high schoolers and middle schoolers to get free ORCA cards, and it's going to be a trade off because that money's actually going to be going away because there's no fares to be paid that way. But in Seattle, for example, that could actually free up those dollars to be spent on transit anyway, because it's the City spending that money. And it's going to be including ferries, Amtrak Cascades, basically any public transit in the entire state is going to be fare-free to riders under 18. We don't quite know exactly how that's going to work yet - assuming free passes for specific groups.
[00:25:50] Crystal Fincher: So, now let's talk about highway expansion. What is going on in this project? How much is being invested in expanding highways, where's that going to be, and what is the conversation around it?
[00:26:03] Ryan Packer: So, the package is proposing to backfill a bunch of highway projects that had been passed in 2015, essentially because costs are going up and things are more expensive now - labor's more expensive, and also delays from COVID just made costs go up. And so, it's backfilling the Puget Sound Gateway projects, which are the extension of SR-167 and 509 down by Port of Tacoma and South King County. So, that's about $430 million that's getting added to that project. It depends how you feel about that project - I know a lot of business groups love that project, it's going to make getting to the ports a lot easier. The Port of Seattle, Port of Tacoma have been fully on board with that project, but it is creating a brand new highway. The last, I would say, highway that's going to bust through a urban area in central Puget Sound. So, it's not an insignificant impact.
It's going to backfill the 520 project, because that project also ran out of money, on the west end in Seattle. The problem with calling that a highway expansion is there's a lot of really great aspects to the project that include bike access. There's a new transit lane that's going to get you from South Lake Union straight to the 520 bridge. Those are all add-ons. So, it's how a highway project should be - is oriented also toward different modes. But the problem is that if you cut that, it's going to leave a highway project. And so, has been hard to describe how that money has gone to be used. But ultimately, those elements are going to be great. It's just a matter of, should this be our priority? I mentioned that the bike and pedestrian and Safe Routes to School program had spent $250 million since 2005, when we're going to give 520 $406 million right now. So, it's this trade-off in terms of realizing how expensive these mega projects are.
But then there's the new projects. And so, there's about $2.5 billion identified for brand new highway projects in the entire package. $1 billion of that is the "Interstate Bridge Replacement" program. And I'll put "bridge" in quotes because it does include, as planned, a replacement for the two bridges that currently go over the Columbia as I-5 between Portland and Vancouver, but it's also a 5-mile, 7-interchange highway expansion project.
[00:29:26] Crystal Fincher: A huge highway expansion project that also is impacting housing and schools in the area, taking over a lot of land and property in that area, and is a behemoth project.
[00:29:43] Ryan Packer: And so, environmental groups on both sides of the border have basically been pushing for what they call a right-sized IBR. I would say they really haven't been successful so far. There's only three designs that are actually on the table. All of them expand the highway to 10 lanes over the river and are going to include a lot of interchanges. There's been some renderings that show basically a brand new elevated highway right through downtown Vancouver.
I think a lot of people agree that we need to have a replacement for that 100-year old bridge, but - one of the spans is 100 years old - but the question is, this is actually expected to be a $4-5 billion project. We're now putting in $1 billion just from Washington. There's going to be some Oregon match, federal money. It's being framed as a replacement project, but it's also going to massively expand the highway. So, there's that element.
[00:30:53] Crystal Fincher: And this has been a long-standing fraught conversation. When I first learned about this project and went through it, toward it was 10 - gosh, I'm old - 12 years ago now. This has been a long-standing conversation between Washington and Oregon about what to replace it with, how much each state is going to be putting in, where those funds are coming from. And so, even with the other tax conversation about Oregon, some of that has implications for this bridge also. And there was some tense moments this past week in rhetoric - some heated words that in this conversation about the tax and some red lines drawn from the Oregon people and a harsh reaction from folks in our state, including Senator Liias, who I think said some words that ultimately he agreed were in haste and crossed the line, which he then apologized for. But this has been a contentious conversation for years, and we're getting close to the finish line, but a lot of these fissures are certainly showing at this point.
[00:32:09] Ryan Packer: Correct, yeah. Last week, Oregon Republicans on the Bridge Committee basically threatened to leave the committee. I think a lot of environmental advocates were daring them to actually make good on that promise, since they're the ones that are pushing for the capacity constraints. But yeah, you mentioned this has been going on for a very long time. So yeah, in 2011 they were able to actually get a federal approval for that previous project. And that's part of the problem with this, is they're actually attempting to reuse that decision. So basically, get a rubber stamp to make some minor changes to that design, but ultimately keep it very similar. They considered adding climate directly to the project's purpose and need. Climate and equity considerations were considered to actually go right to the heart of the project. And they said, "No." They said they didn't want to do that because it would screw up the timeline and not allow them to start construction in 2025 like they want. But I don't know how you can spend a $4 or 5 billion project and not fully center climate and equity between our two supposed climate warrior states.
[00:33:34] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. A lot of rhetoric there. Don't seem to be lining up, although this has been a chronic problem for the years leading up to now. And so, I hope there are more voices who are pushing on that in our legislature. We'll see if that trickles up to leadership, and as they're in conference about this package and see how that turns out, and if some of that gets carried through.
As we're just looking at this package as a whole and where things are going now, what do you think we need to be looking out for? And I guess, what else is at the top of your mind as you consider the effect of this package?
[00:34:17] Ryan Packer: I think this is a very important step, which is centering a transportation package not entirely around the needs of our highway system. But given the incredibly unique nature of this package, with those revenues that are urgently needing to be spent on carbon reduction programs, and the federal matches, and very unique infusion of cash from the general fund - I think we have to make sure that this isn't a one-off, and we don't quite go back to having a highway package that's focused on highways and "local projects."
A lot of legislators and local leaders have been noting that the package doesn't include money for local projects, when it has all those grants I just mentioned - what they're talking about is money that they can get to rebuild roads. Obviously maintenance and preservation is really important. There's $3 billion for preservation and maintenance of the highway system in the package, which is more than we have really spent in the past two decades or so, but it's not the entire purpose of the package. It's to move us toward a different transportation future where it's not as focused around single occupancy vehicles. And so, I think there's a potential for us to sort of slip back, say we already did the climate transportation package in 2022, and then just move on to another package. But we need to fight for these investments to be in every single budget essentially, because traditionally decarbonizing transportation through investing in transit, biking, and walking has been a thing that's been really ignored, even by our governor who focuses a lot on climate action. So, I think we just can't let it slip off.
[00:36:37] Crystal Fincher: Makes sense. Well, thank you so much for joining us today and we will keep our eye out and make sure everyone stays updated on what winds up in the package at the end of the day after the legislature adjourns. Thank you so much for joining us, Ryan.
[00:36:53] Ryan Packer: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:36:54] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcast - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
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