Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Transportation funding faces tough road ahead

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Regardless of how state constitutional challenges to the recently passed Initiative 976 play out in court, state and local entities will have to ask their constituents hard questions as they try to interpret voters’ message and potentially reset transportation funding priorities.

The Journal is no fan of I-976, having earlier urged voters to reject the measure, which will cut an estimated $4 billion in previously anticipated transportation funding over the next six years.

But voters have spoken -- for the third time in two decades limiting car tab fees to $30. In Spokane County 54% of voters approved I-976, which was slightly higher than the statewide approval rate.

Now, in and around Spokane, we will have to keep up the battle to protect and retain hard fought wins we’ve garnered in transportation project funding – such as for the North Spokane Corridor – as West Side interests likely will argue they have greater needs for that money.

More directly, I-976 repeals the Spokane Transportation Improvement District, which helps fund local street maintenance through the city’s own $20 car tab fee. The district was formed by the City Council in 2011 with the intent to generate and estimated $2.6 million annually to be used for road maintenance and operational improvements.

Now, we’ll likely be asking ourselves how to replace that funding if we want the city to keep making headway in reducing its backlog of maintenance projects. I-976, however, does recognize that such districts could be formed and funded with voter approval.

The initiative is scheduled to go into effect Dec. 5, although Seattle and King County already have filed suit to attempt to block it. The plaintiffs, however, will be going against the voice of the majority, including their neighboring Snohomish and Pierce counties, which approved the measure by margins exceeding the statewide approval margin, and now, leaders in those counties don’t seem so eager to challenge the results.

That’s significant because Snohomish and Pierce counties are partners with King County in the Sound Transit mass transit system that receives a portion of its funding through a flawed tax based on inflated vehicle values that Sound Transit and the Legislature so far have shown no desire to fix—and that I-976 eliminated. Sound Transit stands to lose the most in the I-976 fallout.

While state transportation projects that aren’t currently under construction are now on hold until funding priorities are reworked, perhaps we also should be looking at alternatives to traditional public funding sources for transportation.

For example, in the wake of I-976, some supporters of plans to bring ultra-high-speed rail to the Pacific Northwest already are looking at tax increment financing among other alternatives to finance infrastructure for a $50 billion project that would link Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The rough road ahead for transportation funding is going to take some hard work and a unified voice. Advocates for transportation improvements should start mobilizing now.

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