UpdateA version of this post appeared in Crosscut on May 6, 2009.

istock trafficIn a surprise move yesterday afternoon, Washington’s governor Gregoire signed into law a package of spending commitments for the federal stimulus dollars for transportation. Among the roughly $340 million in spending is about $71 million for freeway widening projects—and these are mystifying, to say the least.

The $71 million will be used to add general purpose lanes along I-405 near Bothell and on I-82 in Yakima. Neither of these areas currently have high accident rates nor do the expansions have obvious safety implications. More puzzling still, both projects are already funded by state gas tax money. Strictly speaking that means these projects should be ineligible for stimulus money, which is intended only for new projects.

Additionally, the package sets aside $10 million for general capacity expansion near Ridgefield (north of Vancouver, Washington).

Adding general purpose lanes to freeways in these areas is a surefire way to abet sprawl. No doubt, in a few years we’ll all be shocked—shocked—to discover that growth management hasn’t been terribly effective in Bothell, Yakima, and Ridgefield. What’s more, adding single-occupancy lanes is inimical to the state’s legal commitment to reduce vehicle miles traveled, not to mention to the state’s many efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You don’t need a fancy traffic model to guess that adding freeway lanes will increase our climate emissions and deepen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Plus, using stimulus money to add these lanes is arguably irresponsible from a fiscal perspective.

  • Even in rosier economic times, the state struggles to keep up with a growing maintenance backlog—as evidenced by the $146 million in the package wisely set aside for chip sealing, asphalt preservation, and other maintenance. It’s not at all clear why stimulus money should be spent on road expansion—which will only increase ongoing operational and maintenance costs—when simply repairing and improving the existing road network would do as much to add jobs and give the local economy a boost. Moreover, maintenance projects are “shovel ready” almost by definition. Unlike road expansions, you don’t need heaps of permits, rights-of-ways, or impact statements. 

    What’s more, the state’s spending plan appears curiously anti-urban. It includes not a dime for projects in Seattle, Spokane, or Everett. (In fairness, the package does include a $70 million 3-mile HOV lane expansion on I-5 in north Tacoma.) For the most part, the projects are in rural and exurban areas, with a few in suburbs.

    In fact, Bob Drewell, the executive director of Puget Sound Regional Council, penned a letter objecting on precisely these grounds to an earlier version of the state’s wish list. The letter reads, in part:

    The projects in our region total less than 29% of the WSDOT statewide list while our region represents 55% of the state’s population and 61% of the state’s jobs. The list also excludes projects within Kitsap County. Recent job cuts have been particularly severe within the counties of central Puget Sound.

    But perhaps the most frustrating part of the proposal was the process. People in the know say that the project list was developed behind closed doors by Democratic leadership in Olympia. There was virtually no opportunity for public input and the governor approved the package unexpectedly, before anyone had time to weigh in.

    To be clear, the spending package is not all bad. It includes some smart stimulus spending, such as roadway maintenance and a little bit of HOV and safety money. Spending on these projects will juice the economy in the short term and leave the state in a better position in the long term. So I’m not objecting to the entire spending package, just to the unnecessary and unwise freeway expansions.

    Now, it’s too late. The spending package has been signed into law. The only hope for a more responsible outcome is that the feds will decline to provide the money to Washington or, at minimum, will condition that the money be spent on smarter projects.

    This is frustrating. It sure looks to me like elected state officials went into a smoky back room and directed the stimulus money to unwise highway pork. But maybe I’m missing something. Is there another way to look at it?

    Remember, you can keep an eye on federal stimulus spending atwww.recovery.govAlso, see Erica C. Barnett’s piece at Slog.

    Two updates, 3/7/09:

    1. Please see Josh Feit’s reporting over at Publicola. Josh breaks down the legislative politics and concludes, with some justification, that “Olympia’s anti-Seattle schtick has become pathological.”

    2. Josh isn’t alone. In a story on state stimulus spending, the New York Times devotes six paragraphs to the strangely anti-city bias in Washington’s package, despite the significant need for project money in Seattle.