Roads: Why Fix Them When You Can Build More?

Democrats propose highway expansion spending, little for maintenance.

Go to the Washington transportation department’s website and you’ll find this:

Our highest priority is maintaining and preserving the safe and long-lasting performance of existing infrastructure, facilities and services.

But go to the new transportation package proposed by the House Democrats and you’ll find a funding arrangement that looks like this:

House D transportation

The House package represents a perplexing starting point for discussing transportation funding. The state has a massive backlog of deferred road maintenance, and a well-considered “fix-it-first” policy that prioritizes preserving existing roads over building new ones. Yet the House transportation package would devote nearly six times as much money to highway expansions as it would spend on maintenance.

Stranger still, the package completely neglects the two biggest highway projects currently underway, both of which will require new money from the state. The 520 bridge replacement faces a $1.4 billion shortfall, while the Alaska Way Viaduct replacement is shy at least $235 million, according to the latest toll revenue projections. Assuming that the state still intends to pay for those projects, it will have to devote more than $1.6 billion in additional money to highway construction—pushing maintenance even further into the background.

No one doubts that state and local roads need some meaningful TLC. But an honest reading of the numbers should raise serious doubts about whether highway expansions are necessary. As Sightline has documented over and over again, traffic volumes on state highways have remained roughly flat for a decade, and the state has consistently predicted rising traffic volumes that simply aren’t showing up on the roads.

With traffic flat, now’s the perfect time to prioritize maintenance over new construction. So it’s unfortunate that the House Democrats seem to be adopting something like a “fix it last” posture.


Notes: The figures in this chart come directly from the official summary of the legislative package. You can find more detail here, including specific highway expansion proposals here. Depending on how you do the counting, it might be possible to argue that either or both categories should show more funding. For example, the package also dedicates $675 million to “local government assistance,” some of which can be spent on maintaining local roads, plus $61 million for “complete streets,” which could partially fund some forms of maintenance. (If you counted all of these funds toward road maintenance, it would notch up the category to 16% of the package.) On the other hand, the package also sets aside almost $2.2 billion for “protecting current infrastructure,” a category that includes funding for freight mobility projects that could amount to additional road and highway expansions.

Graphic design by Devin Porter at

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  1. david camp says:

    Consider me a fan of Sightline and a critic of sprawl, but this article omits two essential, big-ticket highway costs that account for half of the proposed new construction: replacement of the ancient I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, and completion of the long-awaited North Spokane Corridor, which vastly improves critical trucking access between Alberta and the US West Coast. Both needs have festered for a very long time, and both are extremely important to the most trade-dependent state in the nation.

    Glad to see that the Dem’s proposed transportation package includes a decent slice for complete streets. We could certainly use some help with that here in Spokane.

    • Derrick says:

      Thanks David. I had noticed those ommissions as well, and as a Spokane resident, the N/S Freeway is our top priority and often overlooked. However, I believe these four projects are individually allocated funds by the legislature and that is why they are not part of the funding package being proposed.

  2. peg staeheli says:

    briefly- writing this on the bus. Maintenance needs better public relations. The funding package may look for attractive projects that put people to work. We need to describe major maintenance with similar terms, this means better metrics on labor and materials needed to restore infrastructure and how that translates to jobs and economic benefits. Major maintenance is not street sweeping …. but .. wink .. street sweeping HAS multiple benefits and may be a good place to start!

  3. Wells says:

    When the question boils down to money, ask first:
    Where is the money to go?

    Rightwing Answer: Steel for XL pipe and coal export, FRACKING the water supply. Drill baby drill gas/oil Gulf, both coasts, national parks, Alaskan reserve, Artic. Not much steel for rail. Some rail in wrong places, export terminals, West Hayden Island, Fresno; rightwing led agencies. Europe/Asian “disposable” car imports increase, jobs loss follows, exporting more trash. This is good spending? Naught.

    Leftwing Answer: We’re mispending like out of control overeducated jerks on a bore tunnel under Seattle. OUR BAD!! Seattle’s MercerWest and Waterfront plans, uh, also bad! Seattle doesn’t do parks very well? Let’s hope Lynn from YOUR state teaches OUR state jerks a lesson in humilty. Let US hope.

    The Rightwing has jobs lined up for paycheck-giving to build the XL ETC CRAP. The first Keystone pipe segment is a defensible improvement to joint Okla/Tex basic operation. Extension further north is plainly unadvisable as a waste of resources, the steel better dedicated elsewhere, Bay Area Peninsula and new LA rail routes, NOT what’s conjured up in the embarrassingly sub-standard DOT works of Warshington State. Gawd, you smart as jerks have got this coming. birn

  4. Wellson says:

    March 8, 12:52pm
    Addressing the destructive threat of climate change requires a reduction in global trade, NOT signing new open-border trade agreements that benefit giant AUTO businesses harming local and small operations.

    Building economies less dependent upon long-distance transport creates MORE jobs, Higher Wage jobs, and a real ‘means’ to reduce costs of living. Export food, grains & fruits these days is migrant labor work and/or mechanized. In other words, global trade exploits wage workers abroad and here. Too, export of fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, shale tar oil is counter-productive, not addressing the threat of global warming considered by some perhaps not idiots we happen to be associated with these days, ya know?

    March 8, 1:00pm
    Alaskan Way Modern Trash olyptical ovoids and glass arrangements for new waterfront design nonsense/shadeless climbs/overlooks with J Corner Fields designs.

    Seattle has a “starchitect” problem in J Corner-fields. While considerable transportation questions are left unanswered, natural habitat restoration designs also suggest the beach plan may be counter-productive. Conclusion: neither natural habitat nor street sanity restoration is achieved.

  5. Wells says:

    Why are House democrats proposing a budget that spends 6x more on highways? Answer: Washington State transportation planners – highway, street and transit – are utterly, embarrassingly incompetent. They’re only good at convincing themselves, other elected pooh-bahs and the public that they know what they’re doing, even as traffic congestion worsens and transit systems fall short of expectations. Such incompetence is beyond incredible; it’s criminal! Wsdot and sdot rig studies to predetermined outcomes.

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