Spokane Journal of Business

New state transportation plan pushes North Spokane Corridor funding

Proposal recommends increase in gas tax, fees

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The Washington State Transportation Commission has completed its 20-year transportation plan and submitted it to the Legislature for consideration late last month, says Joe Tortorelli, Spokane-based vice chairman of the commission. 

“The biggest thing is we’re really advocating for finishing what we’ve started,” Tortorelli says, referring to the North Spokane Corridor and a project with U.S. Highway 12 in Walla Walla. 

The commission will be asking the Legislature to pass a package containing the $750 million to complete the North Spokane Corridor from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90, Tortorelli says. 

“There’s another component, which will be widening I-90 one lane east and westbound,” he says. “The (Department of Transportation) has been getting the land and rights of way for that.”

The main thrust here is to make hauling freight through Spokane more efficient, Tortorelli says. 

“This will improve things for the truckers,” he says. “Right now, from I-90 to Wandermere, they go through 19 to 29 stoplights, depending on the route. On the North Spokane Corridor, it’ll be 10 minutes and no stoplights.”

With the Legislature currently in session, the commission will be looking for the Senate, which failed to pass a funding package last year, to approve this package, Tortorelli says. 

“The transportation funding package will have to originate in the Senate,” he says. “The House passed a (transportation package) last year, but it didn’t include full funding for the North Spokane Corridor … Spokane has a promise that, if the Senate includes the $750 million, the House will pass it.”

Tortorelli says he expects the Senate will pass a package this session. 

“There’s so much pressure for the Legislature to complete this,” he says. “We’ve been working on (the North Spokane Corridor) for 60 years, and it’ll take another eight to 10 years to build it.”

Tortorelli also says that the state, and Eastern Washington in particular, are falling further and further behind on maintenance, because so much is being spent on West Side capital projects, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 520 bridge replacement.

 “We have more extreme weather here (than on the West Side), so maintenance is a big factor here,” he says. “They have more traffic on the West Side, but we have more severe winters.”

Another issue is that construction costs for transportation projects have been rising about 6 percent a year, Tortorelli says. 

“Bids have come in lower over the last few years, because there are fewer projects,” he says. “But the actual cost of construction has gone up.”

Another aspect of transportation that the commission is lobbying for is investment in transit, Tortorelli says. Spokane has a robust transit system, he says, but it still could use more funding. 

“We have one of the most effective systems in the state, and one of the least costs-per-rider systems,” he says. 

On the other side of the state, greater investment in transit systems could help improve traffic, Tortorelli says. 

“Transit is the best answer for the West Side congestion,” he says. 

Tortorelli says the state is considering putting two extra lanes on U.S. Highway 405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue. The lanes would be high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which could be restricted to peak travel hours and would require motorists to pay to use them. 

“Motorists could buy into those lanes with a fee,” Tortorelli says. 

Once completed, the North Spokane Corridor will be able to handle upwards of 20,000 cars a day, Tortorelli says. In its current unfinished state, the highway averages about 4,000 cars a day, he says. 

“And the North Spokane Corridor will relieve a lot of our busy traffic morning and evening that’s going north-south,” he says. 

In order to fund the corridor and other projects, the commission’s revenue proposal includes a 10-cent gas tax increase in 2016 and a 5-cent gas tax increase in 2017.  The money from the gas taxes, the plan says, can be used strictly for maintenance, preservation, and operations—not capital projects. 

To fund capital projects, the commission’s revenue proposal also recommends an increase of 15 percent on weight fees for all trucks that weigh 10,000 pounds or more, which would go toward freight mobility projects, and it also proposes reintroducing a motor vehicle excise tax, Tortorelli says. Such excise taxes were discontinued in Washington in 1999, Tortorelli says. 

“That was a huge drop in revenue,” Tortorelli says. “All gas tax goes towards roads, but tab fees and excise tax (revenue) can go to other things.” 

The excise tax previously was calculated as a percentage of the depreciating market value of the vehicle, Tortorelli says. When it was in effect, the tax generated nearly $1 billion a year, he claims. One area that benefitted from the motor vehicle excise tax was the ferry system, Tortorelli says. 

“Ferry fees have almost tripled since 1999,” he says. 

The commission also is recommending that the Legislature phase out the use of studded tires over the next four years. Studded tires cause damage to the roads, Tortorelli says. 

“Because we’ve allowed them, it’s created ruts in the roads, which can fill up with water,” he says. “Studs separate the tire from the road surface, so there can be a hydroplaning issue.”

Tortorelli also contends that studded tires are outdated, and today’s rubber traction tires actually outperform studded tires in almost all conditions. 

“Some of our other initiatives are advocating for efficiency improvements and advocating for (non-highway) public-private partnerships,” he says. 

An example of a public-private partnership would be if the transit authority had the land for a non-highway park-and-ride center and a private developer came and built the center and collected the fees for it, Tortorelli says. 

Tortorelli says the recent dramatic decline in fuel prices won’t affect the funding proposal; in fact, it may help it. 

“It increases our gas tax revenue (if people buy more gas),” he says. “No matter the price, you pay the state 37.5 cents and the feds 18.4 cents a gallon.”

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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