Or maybe not:

“These are multibillion-dollar projects, and there just isn’t the funding within the current gas tax to pay for these things,” said Rep. Jim Moeller, a Vancouver Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee.

That’s a recent article in the Vancouver Columbian pointing out, correctly, that state gas tax revenues will not be sufficient to pay for all the big new roadway projects on the table in Washington. In fact, the state could be looking at a $3.8 billion funding shortfall by 2025. It sounds scary, but is it really a problem?

A fiscal conservative might point out that there are two sides to a funding shortfall: revenue and expenses. For plenty of reasons, total gas tax revenue is on the decline. Yet our transportation spending habits don’t appear to be changing in tandem. Instead, lawmakers are worried about how to pay for big-ticket stuff:

Four gigantic transportation improvements are looming, including a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River. The others are a replacement for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, the state Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington and a north-south freeway for Spokane.

At the risk of getting all fiscal discipline-y, maybe we should consider, um, not building some of these projects. It’s pretty clear that we can’t pay for them, so perhaps we might try some least-cost measures to replace them. Things like meeting capacity on the Columbia River Crossing with tolling, transit, and other “demand management” techniques. Or, I don’t know, the “surface-transit option” on Seattle’s waterfront.

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  • There aren’t really many popular alternatives available to pay for roads. We can’t pay for the state’s highway wish list without finding more money somewhere. So, we can raise the gas tax, possibly by pegging it to inflation; or we can seriously amp up tolling; or we can raid other funding sources.

    Or, we can recognize that there’s just not a sensible long-term commitment to highways. The Seattle Times blames the problem, somewhat oddly, on “fuel efficient” cars, but the diminished gas tax revenue is a result of many factors, including high unemployment, lower incomes, higher global oil prices, and reduced driving mileage as people choose alternatives to driving or make shorter or fewer trips. And it may soon be exacerbated by an aging population that’s less interested in, or even able to, make most trips behind the wheel.

    Just from a fiscal perspective—forgetting about all the environmental and health impacts—it looks like we’re going to have some hard choices to make about driving. Either it’s going to have to pay its own way, or we’ll have to make do with fewer roads. And actually, if it does start paying its own way, then we may be doing even less driving than we thought.