Standing near a pair of ailing bridges, Gov. Jay Inslee took a hiatus from COVID-19 speeches Friday afternoon to call for big spending on highway preservation.
"We are getting our vaccines. Now we need to get our roads, bridges and ferries. All of these things are necessary for the rebuilding of Washington state's economy. We need to make the investments first, and I emphasize first, in maintenance of our existing transportation system," Inslee said. "It is woefully underfunded."
He spoke at Seattle's new Fritz Hedges Waterway Park, with the state's 59-year-old I-5 Ship Canal Bridge in the background, rust streaking down its steel beams. That bridge needs new decks, repainting and seismic strengthening, said state Transportation Secretary Roger Millar.
For two decades, the Legislature has embraced new megaprojects as roads built in the mid-20th century reached the end of their designed life spans. Since 2002, the lion's share of 23.9 cents per gallon in new fuel taxes went toward expanding or replacing freeways, such as the $4.65 billion Highway 520 project still underway.
The last time gas taxes were raised for preservation was an 8-cent boost in 1998, Millar said.
The good news, said Inslee, is that state lawmakers in 2021 are paying attention to the problem.
Nationally, new U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week also preached preservation, in addition to his zeal for high-speed rail and electric vehicles.
"Fix it first is going to be a very important mantra for us," Buttigieg told Bloomberg CityLab. "It doesn't always have the same sizzle as doing something new, but we've got to be doing both. You just look at the condition of so many roads and bridges in this country. We can't allow that backlog to continue."
Buttigieg hasn't yet issued a specific plan, and Congress has been allergic to raising the federal gas tax, stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says it needs $8.1 billion in new money during the next decade just to maintain what's called "a state of good repair." That figure includes $2 billion to replace five ferries.
The Legislature's leading transportation spending proposals contain preservation money, though far below the WSDOT target.
Asked if he would veto a plan that falls short, Inslee said he's not drawing a line in the sand about the $8.1 billion gap.
"We are here to inspire, not to threaten." he said. " ... We want to get people to work together. This is a bugle call to action."
State Senate Transportation Committee chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said he hasn't talked with Inslee yet this year about Hobbs' big Forward Washington proposal.
As of January, that package showed $2.5 billion dedicated to highway preservation, plus $1 billion to ferries and $100 million to freight rail, within the $18.7 billion total over 16 years, to be funded mainly by gas taxes and carbon fees.
"What I like is the fact everyone's talking about it, because they weren't talking about it last time with Connecting Washington," Hobbs said Thursday night. That was the 2015 state plan funded by an 11.9 cent gas tax hike, to 49.4 cents total.
Besides preservation, Inslee endorsed a new I-5 Columbia River bridge to Portland, a new westbound Highway 2 trestle to Everett in Hobbs' district, and electric ferries.
Sam Zimbabwe, the Seattle Department of Transportation director, said city residents are doing their part through property tax levies, and called on the Legislature to send dollars to cities. Girmay Zahilay, a Metropolitan King County Council member, recalled growing up in Skyway with only sporadic buses passing by, and called transportation a basic survival need.
Behind them, cars crossed University Bridge, built in 1919, reconstructed in 1933 and now rated "poor" by the National Bridge Inventory and a recent city audit.