Potential transportation reforms look promising, will deliver more value

Legislators are contemplating a transportation package to fund needed infrastructure improvements in Washington. Many of these projects are important for Washington’s economic competitiveness, such as completing SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma.

It’s important that any transportation package passed in Olympia go to the voters for approval – and Senate leaders have vowed to do just that. Not only is it proper that voters should have the final say, but putting a package on the ballot means greater thought will go into choosing projects that voters will approve. They need to see the value. As I said last week, don’t ask the voters to pay more for transportation unless they get more in return.

Washington voters have seen the high-profile problems, such as the cracked 520 pontoons and chronic issues in the ferry system, and have a more general sense that too much of their gas tax money is sucked up by long, costly permitting processes, too many consultants, and unnecessary studies and ancillary projects that keep interest groups happy.

Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), chair of Senate transportation committee, is working to increase the value drivers get from their gas tax dollars. His efforts are essential if legislators hope to convince taxpayers to make another round of investments. Sen. King has already made progress on this front, negotiating with the House on a series of reforms:

The briefing papers indicate that House and Senate have already reached agreement on other reform measures, including streamlining environmental reviews, “right-sizing” projects to rein in mitigation costs, and requiring the Department of Transportation to report to the Legislature about costly engineering errors. House and Senate have agreed to new rules for union prevailing-wage surveys and would eliminate apprenticeship requirements for road projects costing less than $5 million – the current threshold is $2 million. Other smaller-scale management reforms remain a matter of negotiation.

One major reform still being negotiated would go a long way toward showing the public that state government is ready to spend gas tax dollars more effectively. The current practice of charging sales tax on transportation projects results in a large chunk of your gas tax dollars being diverted to state government’s general fund. Drivers expect their gas taxes to transportation projects, as the state constitution requires. Ending this practice will ensure that all of your gas tax money goes toward maintaining and improving our highway system.

Some of the reforms being negotiated seem obvious. Shouldn’t “congestion relief” already be a stated goal for the next transportation package? That seems like a no-brainer, but some interest groups in Olympia can’t stand that kind of common sense. You can read the list of reforms under consideration here. In the meantime, thank you Sen. King and your colleagues for working to deliver more value from our transportation funds.

— Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.