House Transportation Bill: Cars First!

Lots for highway megaprojects, precious little for anything else.

Imagine traveling to an alternate universe, a wacky mirror-world where ostensibly progressive and pro-environment political leaders relentlessly promoted sprawl-inducing highway megaprojects, while offering only a pittance to transit, rail freight, bike paths, sidewalks, or anything else that doesn’t directly support the automobile.

Well, stop imagining: that alternate universe is real-life Olympia, Washington. That’s where the Democrats on the House transportation committee recently announced a highway-centric transportation spending package that might have made Robert Moses blush—and could well represent a low-water mark for the state’s already depressing transportation debate.

The numbers, taken from the description of the package posted earlier this week, tell the tale:


Putting this chart together required some judgment calls. For some spending, it’s hard to decide if it counts as “auto-centric” or “other.” For those who care, I explain some of the choices I made in the methods section at the end of this post.

But even if you quibble with the specifics, it’s hard to argue with the big picture: this package sacrifices environmental priorities on the altar of the automobile. For example, it gives a single brand new highway megaproject—the SR-167/SR-509 Gateway16 times as much money as the entire “complete streets” program to retrofit streets all across the state to work for pedestrians, bikes, and transit, rather than just cars. And heck, the package devotes 60 times as much money to just the top 5 highway megaprojects as it gives to “transit support.”

As in any example of legislative sausage making, a few of the ingredients seem palatable enough. There’s a trickle of money to help fix some of the damage that roads do to streams and rivers. There’s a wee bit of cash for transit, and for bike and pedestrian projects. Plus some of the money spent on megaprojects comes from tolling users themselves. No doubt, people who don’t focus on the harm that highway megaprojects can do—both to the environment and to the state’s fiscal health—may find some of those ingredients enticing.

But to my eyes, the dish that the House is serving looks like a dog’s breakfast, larded with massive spending on a handful of highway projects, and largely paid for with regressive taxes. So at this point, I can only hope that the legislature will sniff at the plate and walk away—and that the state’s progressive transportation won’t lead us through the looking glass again next year.

Graphic by


Notes about sources and methods.

Dividing up the proposed transportation spending package above required judgment calls—particularly about whether spending was “car-related.”

  • Does providing transit mitigation during megaproject construction count as megaproject spending or transit spending?  I counted it as transit, and tallied it as part of the thin green bar representing “everything else.”
  • Does money for fish culverts under roadways count as road spending or not?  As with the transit money above, I tallied fish culverts as non-road spending.
  • How much of rebuilt ferry terminals would count as a “car-related” expense? I apportioned the Seattle and Mukilteo ferry terminal reconstruction projects based on the estimated weight of cars vs. people currently served by those terminals.
  • How should we deal with money given to counties and cities?  I assumed—probably generously—that 40 percent would pay for something other than roads and cars, and tallied it towards “everything else.”
  • What about unassigned “contingency” funds? I split the small pot of money designated as “contingency” funding, along with some other unassigned spending, based on the percentages for megaproject, car-centric, and other spending that had been clearly assigned.
  • How did you deal with debt service? In this budget, debt service would be unnecessary without massive highway megaprojects. So I counted all debt service towards megaproject funding.

Even if you disagree with some of the specific choices I made, the big picture does not change: this is a package heavily devoted to highway megaprojects, roads, and cars.

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  1. Mic says:

    The state has mostly been responsible for road projects in the past, so I’m not surprised at the splits.
    To be fair, we fund transit from separate taxes dedicated to them only, so if you look at all spending, from all sources, then transit it getting about half the pie now, while roads are still expected to carry about 80+% of the people trips.
    Careful how loud you whine, lest the truth in spending bite you in the butt.
    Both modes have their special varieties of boondoggles, but that’s a different article.

  2. Marty says:

    Mic makes a great point. King County, for example, spends around $1.4 BILLION per year on transit, when you combine Metro and the part of Sound Transit’s budget that is spent in King County. That is mostly county sales tax, plus county car tabs and county MVET. And King County spends only about $100 million per year on county roads. So, at the county level, King County is spending close to 14 times as much money on transit as it does on roads. And almost all trips in King County, including transit trips, are on roads.

    How would transit exist without roads? To say that money spent on roads and bridges does not benefit transit is just stupid, unless you believe that transit buses are going to be prohibited on the roads included in this package.

    This state transpo budget gets 100% of its revenue from taxes and fees (including tolls) on motor vehicles. So, the money should be spend on roads and bridges. If you want more money spent on transit, then tax transit users to pay for it. Buses don’t even pay any fuel tax or license fees.

    Cars are the least expensive means of motorized travel in our area. And new cars are the most energy-efficient means of motorized travel. In our area, transit is just insanely expensive, at around 80 cents per passenger-mile just for operating cost (not including any capital costs or depreciation). The operating cost of an average sedan (excluding capital costs, like depreciation) is around 20 cents per passenger-mile, or about 1/4 the cost of transit in our area.

    • Andrew says:

      “Cars are the least expensive means of motorized travel in our area. And new cars are the most energy-efficient means of motorized travel. In our area, transit is just insanely expensive, at around 80 cents per passenger-mile just for operating cost (not including any capital costs or depreciation). The operating cost of an average sedan (excluding capital costs, like depreciation) is around 20 cents per passenger-mile, or about 1/4 the cost of transit in our area.”

      Hmm. In a recent Siteline edition: “Sightline Daily 04-16-13: Accidents Happen” there’s a link to an article in which the AAA tells us that its now 61 cents/mile for an individual to own and operate a car (average sedan). None of this includes infrastructure costs, and certainly doesn’t include the externalized cost of an auto-dependent world.

      I’ll bet the expensive transit you are referring to is well under capacity. It wouldn’t take too many economic tricks (road tolls, higher parking costs, greater fuel costs, etc) to fill those seats and drastically drop the cost/passenger-mile of transit.

      If transit is more expensive than driving, then there’s something wrong with the transportation and/or land-use model that’s been implemented.

      • Marty says:

        Obviously, you did not read my comment. I clearly wrote about “operating costs” of both transit and autos. The 80 cents per passenger-mile for transit in our area does not include any infrastructure (rails, stations, buses, roads — you do understand that buses need roads too, right?). If you include depreciation for transit, as you did for cars, that 80 cents per passenger-mile more than doubles, for rail, and increases significantly for buses.

        Also the figure for transit is per PASSENGER-mile, not vehicle-mile, like the AAA figure for cars you used. The average number of passengers per car in the U.S. is around 1.6. So, if the total cost of operating AND OWNING a new car is 61 cents per VEHICLE-mile, that would mean about 38 cents per PASSENGER-mile.

        And, for cars, that total cost per mile includes a multitude of taxes, including gas tax; sales tax on the car, parts, maintenance, etc. (which in Seattle is about 9.5%); license fees; MVET; and others, all of which can be used to build infrastructure like roads and bridges. The transit operating costs include ZERO money for infrastructure.

        And for buses, even when you include all the capital costs, that only pays for the buses — there is no money whatsoever in Metro’s budget to pay for the roads the buses use, and Metro pays no gas tax, or license fees or tolls. So, while motorists are continually paying taxes on every dollar they spend on their transportation, transit riders pay zero taxes on their transit fares. So, a part of the money motorists spend on their transportation goes to pay for roads. NONE of the money transit riders spend on their transit trips goes to pay for roads or rails, or even for the buses or trains they ride on.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Unsurprisingly, I agree with you Andrew! That said, the AAA number he cites generally refers to new/newer cars that are still depreciating quickly. Driving an older car costs less per mile.

      But in general, the overall cost of driving — tallying both internal costs (car ownership, gas, repairs, residential parking, etc.) and external costs (nonresidential parking spaces, roads, car crashes, fuel externalities, etc.) — generally exceed the comprehensive cost of transit, except where transit money is poorly spent.

      I do think that Marty & Mic have a point: transit money could be spent more efficiently!! I believe there’s a tendency to overspend on high-cost transit (such as light rail) at the expense of lower-cost transit (vanpools, high-frequency & high-ridership bus lines, etc.). But transit is complicated, because it provides an array of services—notably greater space and commuting efficiency in crowded downtowns; plus mobility for students, seniors, and people without access to cars or licenses. This latter function—providing basic mobility for people who can’t drive—has little bearing on environmental priorities, and substantially drives up the cost of transit.

      At heart, though, my critique of the package isn’t that it doesn’t spend enough on transit. Not at all. Instead, it’s that its spending priorities in general are upside down. Traffic on state roads has been flat for a decade; we don’t need massive new megaprojects. We’re planning our megaprojects poorly, with the CRC as perhaps the prime example, yet we keep throwing money at them. The package underspends on maintenance and preservation, pushing up long term costs. The Gateway program is a nascent idea, but simply adds to the list of projects we already can’t figure out how to pay for. The package may spend too much on ferries. It doesn’t spend enough undoing the environmental damage that roads have created. Etc.

      On the merits, the transportation package is full of trimmable pork, and its funding is misdirected.
      Arguments about King County’s transit spending are beside the point.

  3. Heather says:

    I agree that money needs to be spent on maintaining the roads, but we have far too many cars on the roads making traffic a nightmare. We need to be doing more to improve our metro and transit systems, not cutting money out of it. The latest proposed metro cuts will only mean more cars on the road, which will lead to a lot less happy commuters!

  4. Wells says:

    It never ceases to amaze how the matter of money trumps all issues. Will it be too expensive to save the world and human civilization from industrial impact? No doubt. Leaders give a nod to environmentalism keenly aware that Seattlers are easily misled. Is the waterfront beach idea good for salmon runs? Answer: No.
    More NW highways as NW railways are dedicated to coal in exchange for Asian imports as another money-centric short-term fix for our trade deficit. Exporting American-made muscle cars is steroidal suicide. It’s over. The Big Boys have a plan for the lower classes. Seattle is doomed. The bore tunnel will undermine Seattle building foundations its entire length forever. Seattle and the world is doomed because people are stupid.

    • thomas cappiello says:

      I see this stuff and just have to shake my head in wonder. It seems like society as a whole just continues to try to shove the proverbial square peg down the round rabbit hole. Unless population growth is limited (or heaven-forbid halted), and planned for, way out in advance, you aren’t going to solve the problems that go along with it with retroactive nonsense that just seems to make money for the people who are running the show and influencing the decision makers. I watched the suburbs of Seattle become traffic and ecological nightmares because developers pushed their way into these areas en-masse without any regard to the environment (paved over salmon streams, cleared mature fir and cedar forests) instantly creating bedroom communities with only a two lane country road connectors. Then shoved everybody down the 5 and 405 without any consideration at all for the future of that growth. Bothell, Woodinville, Redmond, what a nightmare!. All becuase of this of god-given manifest destiny and pursuit of happiness for the individual. Should have been building rail and mass transit systems 40-50 years ago and figuring out where best to arrange the big industries (like MSFT) in relation to livable space. Its too late now, its all messed up and you aren’t going back, we have to stop this “growth” madness or rethink how society operates the connection between work and home and our relationship to the environment upon which we all depend. The piecemeal shorterm thinking approach is doomed to failure.

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