Transportation budget “keeps the lights on”

The Legislature passed the 2021-23 biennial transportation budget that provides $11.8 billion in appropriation authority, including approximately $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to help fill funding gaps. Of that one-time federal money, $600 million will be used to backfill pandemic-related revenue losses, while about $400 million is slated for water-infrastructure investments to remove fish barriers and increase water flow. However, budget writers are still waiting for the US Department of the Treasury to issue guidance on whether investments in water infrastructure include spending on fish culverts.

It is important to note that this is the regular biennium budget; it is not a major transportation-funding package that includes new resources, such as the $17-billion, 16-year package introduced by Sen. Steve Hobbs. That package or a House version await consideration in a special session or in 2022.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and sponsor of the two-year transportation budget bill, is thankful that tough decisions to cut or delay projects did not have to be made, but warned that much more work needs to be done to truly meet the transportation infrastructure needs of communities across Washington.

“This budget only keeps the lights on, and Washingtonians expect and need more than a transportation budget that merely keeps the lights on,” Hobbs said. “One-time federal money will keep us afloat for a bit, but to really address the multitude of needs that exist in communities throughout Washington, a transportation-revenue package must be passed.”

In addition to the ARP federal funds, $142.9 million from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), the federal COVID-19 relief package passed in December, will also go toward fish-culvert removal. And $124 million in CRRSA funds will go toward addressing the shortfall in funding for Puget Sound ferry operations.

For a summary of the funding for the various WSDOT programs, click here.

Despite the fiscal constraints, there are some modest new investments included in the transportation budget including:

  • $5M additional funding for a total of $32.6M for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Grant Program.
  • $5M additional funding for a total of $36.7M for the Safe Routes to Schools Grant Program.
  • $5M additional funding for a total of $67.8M for Special Needs Transit.
  • $5M additional funding for a total of $21.8M for Public Transportation – Green Transportation Capital Grants.
  • $250,000 for WSDOT to work with the Department of Commerce to develop vehicle miles traveled (VMT) targets for counties of a certain population density.
  • $4.0 million in additional funding for the Pre-Apprenticeship & Supportive Services (PASS) grant program to recruit and retain members from underrepresented communities in construction trades. This investment pushes funding for this program to $6 million for this biennium.
  • $2M to the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises for increasing the number of certified women and minority-owned contractors outside of the Puget Sound area in the transportation sector.
  • Funding is maintained at $726.4 million in the 2021-23 biennium for fish-passage barrier removal using a variety of federal funds, savings from Connecting Washington projects to be deposited into the Transportation Future Funding Program Account, and state funds.

The transportation budget will continue to fund major work that was under threat last year because of financial pressures from the COVID pandemic and an initiative that caused Gov. Jay Inslee to put construction projects on hold to save money. 

“Thanks to federal funding, we don’t have to make those big cuts,” said House Transportation Chair Jake Fey (D-Tacoma). “And this budget actually lets us move toward creating a transportation system that is cleaner, greener and more equitable for all the people of Washington state.” 

Fey said that fellow Democratic lawmakers on the Transportation Committee held nearly 90 listening sessions around the state in 2020. Those conversations helped guide new initiatives in the two-year transportation budget such as the new investments in equity and sustainability.  

“We need a more diverse workforce in transportation,” Fey said, “and we’re putting money behind that idea to bring more women and minority workers on as apprentices and as owners getting contracts for projects. This budget also puts more funding into green transportation and electrification, with funding for charging stations, infrastructure, and the electrification of transit buses and ferries.” 

Additional highlights, Fey said, include boosts in funding for non-highway funding such as Safe Routes to Schools, bicycle/pedestrian projects and special needs transit.

For more information, contact AGC chief lobbyist Jerry VanderWood.

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