More than 700 people likely died on Washington's roads in 2022, according to early estimates, a mark not reached since 1996.
As the state House and Senate transportation committees resume their work in the 2023 legislative session that begins Jan. 9, it will be with this toll hanging over lawmakers' heads.
"The overriding top priority will be traffic safety," said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
Transportation dominated the state's previous legislative session, as Democrats jockeyed to pass a massive funding package for highway projects, transit, ferries, and walking and biking. They succeeded, pushing through nearly $17 billion over the next 16 years, over the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans.
With housing and homelessness already taking top billing for this year's session, transportation is unlikely to collect the same level of political capital as it did earlier this year. But as more people die on the roads, inflation drives up the cost of projects, workforce shortages persist and questions about how Washington will fund transportation in the future become more pointed, the policy debates around transportation in the upcoming session could reverberate on the roads for years.
For Liias, who's entering his second year as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, the priorities are safety, followed by preserving and building on the investments made last session and then looking toward the future of the gas tax, Washington's main source of transportation funds. His hope is to approach these issues with support from Republicans, a bipartisan approach he acknowledged was not a priority during the previous session.
"My gut told me that voters wanted action more than they wanted bipartisanship, which is why we made the decision to move ahead on our own," he said of last session's work. "Now we have the opportunity to go back ... to build that bipartisan consensus on maintenance and preservation."
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, said his top concern is inflation, which is making transportation projects more expensive. He also pointed to the continued decline of traffic enforcement, which he argued was pushing up the number of deaths on the road. The Legislature in the previous session siphoned general fund dollars toward transportation and King said he'd like lawmakers to do so again this year to ensure ongoing projects are completed on time.
Another bucket that will likely get attention is equity. Advocacy organizations like the ACLU of Washington and Transportation Choices Coalition are pressuring lawmakers to decriminalize low-level traffic violations, like jaywalking and other non-moving violations, arguing they're ineffective and disproportionately affect people of color.
The most direct response to the safety crisis is a proposal from Liias and Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, to lower the legally allowed blood-alcohol limit from 0.08% to 0.05%. Estimates show drivers were impaired by drugs or alcohol in around half of the state's serious and fatal crashes. The inspiration for the bill comes from Utah, which lowered its limit in 2019. The state subsequently saw a drop in fatal crashes, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tied to the change in law.
Liias said the Legislature will likely also consider allowing automated traffic enforcement in work zones and proposals to increase access to driver's education.
Another issue is the decline of traffic infractions, which are on pace to drop for the third year in a row. Through October of this year, police across Washington wrote roughly half the number of tickets they wrote in 2019, according to data from the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts.
Reversing that trend is key to safety, said King. After years of progress reducing the number of traffic deaths, "that's all out the window," he said. "We've got to get more enforcement."
It looked for a time like Washington could top 800 deaths for the year, Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, told members of the House Transportation Committee earlier this month. That is unlikely now, but it's clear that 2022 will be "much worse" than 2021, she said.
"It's a distressing place to find ourselves," Baldwin said.
For Liias, reversing the jump in deaths will mean re-imagining how transportation projects are built — to slow drivers and make more space for pedestrians — while also doing what they can to change driver behavior.
"The measures to address it are not easy," he said. "If they were easy, we'd have done it."
Road use charge?
Another major question is how Washington will fund transportation projects into the future. The state currently relies heavily on a 49 cent per gallon tax on gas. But gasoline use is expected to decline in the coming decades as electric vehicles become more popular and the state bans the sale of new internal combustion cars.
The Washington State Transportation Commission voted in December to recommend legislators begin a slow rollout of a per-mile road usage charge to replace the gas tax and be fully implemented by 2028. State officials have been discussing such a charge for decades now, but commissioners say the urgency is increasing as electric vehicles become more popular.
The new charge has theoretical support from transit advocates, but only on the condition that the revenue be open to all transportation projects, not just roads and highways, said Hester Serebrin, policy director of Transportation Choices Coalition.
Lawmakers are also open to the change, but harbor concerns about the cost of its implementation.
"If it's going to be a lasting, dependable funding stream, it's got to be something that both parties agree upon so it's not enacted and repealed, enacted and repealed," said Liias.
Outside advocacy organizations would like to see the Legislature take up enforcement of low-level and non-moving traffic violations. Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for better transit in the state, recently launched a campaign to end enforcement of jaywalking laws, which data consistently shows land disproportionately on people of color. California recently passed a law decriminalizing jaywalking.
Serebrin of Transportation Choices Coalition argued the laws don't make people safer and take away from higher-priority enforcement. "Where we use enforcement, we want to make sure it's focused on actual safety issues," she said.
At the same time, the ACLU of Washington hopes to reduce or eliminate punitive enforcement of other low-level violations like broken taillights or expired tabs, said ACLU attorney Enoka Herat. Instead, the organization would like to see a fund set up to pay to fix the problem — replacing a taillight, providing someone on a bike with a helmet — rather than levy a fine.
It's an approach, said Herat, that "threads the needle between safety and equity."
This year's legislative session is a long one — 105 days — meaning lawmakers must pass a two-year budget. Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced his proposal, which includes millions for building new ferries and converting existing ones to be hybrid-electric. It also includes $15 million for bike and pedestrian projects, $3 million for safety improvements on Highway 7 and $6 million for automated enforcement in work zones.
Liias said the Legislature will certainly tweak the governor's proposal, but it's thrust is what he expected.
"There are no surprises for me in the budget," he said.