Other Views: Washington’s Culvert Challenge Deserves Federal Funding

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A federal court order to open up hundreds of fish passages beneath roads by 2030 has been Washington’s burden for years. This $3.7 billion undertaking deserves federal funding so it does not starve other critical state infrastructure needs. Restoration of threatened salmon and steelhead runs is an unavoidable priority.

Washington’s congressional delegation should press to address this environmental need in legislation to revive the post-pandemic economy. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t exactly send the state money in its 2018 ruling requiring it fix 425 Western Washington fish passages. The U.S. Treasury Department and Congress should now step up to help meet the remaining $3.3 billion price tag for this multiyear effort, including $726 million in the state’s current budget proposal.

With federal machinery whirling to stimulate the economy, culverts must be a funding priority. Fish passage reconstruction has created employment across much of Western Washington, and more importantly allowed salmon to once again transit more natural stream ways. But state infrastructure accounts funded by toll revenues and the gas tax have been thinned out by pandemic travel curtailment, leaving money short to cover fish culverts and human transportation needs. 

Federal authorities have two important ways to help.

The first is allowing Washington’s slice of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus act to help cover its culvert costs. On Monday, state senators placed a big bipartisan bet, unanimously approving a transportation budget that moves $400 million of federal coronavirus relief to culvert replacement.

“We would really be in a world of hurt if it wasn’t for that amount of money,” Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said before the transportation budget passed.

As state lawmakers have requested, federal Treasury regulators should make a generous reading of the American Rescue Plan Act to sign off on this strategy. The legislation designates the funding “for necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.” Yet, agency officials consider culverts transportation infrastructure, not water, because they lie under roads. Treasury should approve the common-sense idea that “water infrastructure” includes removing man-made barriers to help recreate natural stream conditions.

There is precedent. In the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, Congress devoted $25 million toward removal of invasive Asian carp from Kentucky and Tennessee waterways. Bipartisan federal lawmakers have pushed toward adding support for a gauntlet of obstacles to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes. If creating barriers to block invasive fish is water infrastructure, clearing such barriers for salmon ought to be called that, too.

Additionally, President Joe Biden also should extend help for culverts projects in the sweeping national infrastructure bill he is expected to announce on Wednesday. Washington is well positioned to influence what this bill funds, with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chairing the Senate’s commerce committee.

Cantwell has urged that the infrastructure bill address areas in critical need of improvement in Washington: megaprojects including the West Seattle and Columbia River bridges, freight infrastructure, and at-grade crossings where rail congestion snarls traffic. The big bill for fish culverts belongs on this list as well, and Cantwell, a longtime advocate of salmon restoration, can lend important weight to this cause.

The courts intended federal participation for years. The 2017 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that sent this invoice Washington’s way said “a portion” would come from federal funding.

These shovel-ready culvert projects can advance economic and environmental goals simultaneously, and free up state funds to be invested on complementary work. That’s what infrastructure packages are intended to do.

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