The case for reform and a comprehensive approach to transportation policy

Below is an op-ed I recently submitted to the Seattle Times. They declined to publish it — saying they don’t print op-eds in response to things that have already been published — so I’m taking this opportunity to share it with you. Feel free to share your feedback with me via email at doug@senatorericksen.com or by phone in Olympia at (360) 786-7682.

Washington needs a comprehensive approach to transportation — not “Ready, Tax, Aim”

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

Yet again the Seattle Times has missed the boat — or in this case the ferry — with regards to building infrastructure. In a recent editorial, it advocates for a “Ready, Tax, Aim” method of developing a statewide transportation package. While the Times’ approach won’t come as a surprise to Washingtonians outside the Space Needle’s shadow, or to the thinking conservatives who see the Needle every day, it also isn’t what our state needs right now.

The Times dismissively says that the statewide transportation meetings being led by the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus must be more than a “listening tour.” In reality, the meetings would be more accurately referred to as a Leadership, Education, Solutions, and Action tour. Our goal is to ensure the public is educated about our current transportation system, and that any legislative action taken reflects public sentiment.

Further, the Times calls raising taxes and building a bridge over the Columbia River the controversial issues that must be addressed. The truth is that raising taxes in Olympia is easy — it happens every year. The hard part, and where real leadership is needed, is reforming the system so that your tax dollars can be used effectively.

Put simply, within the confines of the current system for transportation construction, we cannot raise taxes high enough to address all of the needs in Washington; there is not enough money. Helping people understand this fact is where education comes in.

We need to bring to light some important facts:

  1. It costs significantly more to build a road in Washington than in other states.
  2. Roughly 40 percent of the price tag of every transportation project goes to optional costs such as charging ourselves sales tax or needless delays due to poorly written state laws.
  3. Washington’s labor laws substantially drive up the costs of projects.
  4. A process-driven bureaucracy delays projects and increases costs.

Solutions are needed and we know what they are. Eliminate the sales tax on transportation projects. Fix the permitting system to eliminate unnecessary delays that drive costs. Bring labor laws into alignment with federal standards. And maybe even more drastic ideas like creating a Free Enterprise Zone east of the Cascades to energize the economy.

Some saw the collapse of the Skagit River bridge as an opportunity to push to raise taxes. But the real lesson learned is that when politicians and bureaucrats in Olympia get out of the way and allow the professionals at the state Department of Transportation and our skilled contractors to get the job done, they do it — quickly and below budget. The next step is to take the Skagit River bridge rebuilding example and apply it statewide.

Protecting the environment is important to all of us in Washington and we don’t have to sacrifice our natural heritage to build roads more effectively. Think of this way — whether we build a project in one year or in 15 years, the environmental impacts will be the same but we save a lot of money by building it in one year.

We have transportation needs in every corner of our state and the bottom line is that we need action. The “Ready, Tax, Aim” approach will bring in some fast cash but it will leave us with crumbling infrastructure throughout the rest of Washington.

A comprehensive transportation solution must start with a comprehensive transportation construction reform effort if we are to address all of the pressing needs of our state.

Senator Doug Ericksen, GOP-Ferndale, is a member of the Senate Transportation Committee and has represented the state’s 42nd District since 1999.