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State’s transportation system urgently needs an upgrade

johnson-johnson-mullinBy JEFF JOHNSON, ROB JOHNSON and STEVE MULLIN

Washington’s transportation system, on which we all depend, urgently needs an upgrade.

Some signs of the problem are obvious: traffic snarls that frustrate commuters and cost local employers millions of dollars in unnecessary expense. Other symptoms may be less obvious: deteriorating pavement and bridges, aging ferries and reduced bus service.

These problems pose serious risks to public safety, the state’s economic vitality, business competitiveness, environmental quality and the health of communities around our state. When our transportation facilities and services come up short, everyone is impacted: farmers and fruit growers, manufacturers and shippers, a workforce of commuters, and families traveling to schools, health care and recreation.

Today, valuable public assets — roads, bridges, ferries and buses — are deteriorating due to insufficient investment in their maintenance, operations and preservation. Our transportation system is like our homes. Ongoing upkeep and upgrades are needed if it’s to continue meeting our needs.

But at current preservation and maintenance funding levels we’ll be going in the opposite direction. Estimates are that if we don’t increase our maintenance and preservation investments, more than half of the surfaces on state roads will be in poor to very poor condition by 2023.

Local governments face similar challenges in providing local streets, bike lanes and sidewalks to serve a growing population. And public-transit demand will continue growing — increasing in the central Puget Sound region an estimated 90 percent by 2040 — posing a severe challenge for agencies whose funding has been slashed during the recession.

Recognizing the importance of transportation to our state’s economy and quality of life, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire created the Connecting Washington Task Force in 2011 to address this serious problem. Comprised of a broad range of stakeholder and geographic interests from around our state, the group worked for months analyzing our transportation needs today and into the future. The group estimated that addressing our state’s growing transportation needs will cost $50 billion over the next decade.

The task force also concluded that current funding is not enough to do the job. Current revenues cannot cover the cost of preserving, maintaining and operating our existing transportation system; completing the critical economic corridor projects already under way; addressing stormwater management; or creating a fully integrated system to serve a growing state population in the 21st century. Revenues from the two most recent gas-tax packages are now primarily obligated to debt service on prior projects, and changing consumer patterns will make future gas taxes less effective as our state’s primary funding source for transportation-related expenditures.

Recognizing this need, a broad coalition of employers, organized labor, environmental organizations and local governments have come together to urge Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature to begin addressing these identified needs by developing and enacting a comprehensive statewide plan for funding critical transportation investments in the 2013 legislative session. We encourage our elected officials to continue the tradition of bipartisan cooperation in finding transportation solutions for our state and make a significant down payment this year on the $50 billion.

Investing in these assets now will protect public safety, enhance the state business climate, create tens of thousands of jobs, preserve our natural environment and improve the quality of life for people across Washington state.

Regardless of what side of the Cascades they represent or on what side of the aisle they sit, all legislators must work together to identify an investment plan and funding mechanism for our state’s unmet transportation needs. Action is needed in Olympia this year to develop and adopt such a plan.

Doing so will demonstrate that we are serious about making prudent investments for our future.

Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Rob Johnson is executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition. Steve Mullin is president of the Washington Roundtable. This column originally appeared in The Seattle Times and is reposted here with the authors’ permission.

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