I’ve been reading more lately about Washington State’s constitution. The summer of 1889 was an eventful one around these parts. The great fire burned a large portion of Seattle to the ground and Washington became a state. Since the fire Seattle has been rebuilt, expanded, and thoroughly revised and updated with a bus tunnel, light rail, and skyscrapers. The population of the state was 357,232 according to the 1890 census and now it is well over 6 million with an economy that has diversified from the largely timber based economy of the late 19th century. However, the document that governs the lives of Washington’s people looks a lot like it did the century before last. True, it’s been amended dozens of times, but when compared to other things about Washington its constitution has failed to keep pace. I’ve already suggested changes to promote energy efficiency. What about transportation?
The first target of my constitution-editing sharpie pen, however, would actually be to one of the changes to the original consitituion: the 18th amendment, ratified in the 1940s, which dedicates:
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All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes.
The state first issued licenses for automobiles in 1905 when it issued a total of 763 licenses. By 2007, the most recent year for which the Census has information, the state issued 5,689,000 licenses generating, along with excise taxes, more than $1.7 billion in revenue for the state transportation budget. But none of that money can be spent on alternatives to “highway purposes” like transit. That’s why there is a lawsuit about putting light rail on Interstate 90.
Here’s what’s maddening: the state has also committed to reducing the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). That makes sense when we consider the source of most of the state’s carbon emissions. Washington motorists drove about 58.5 billion miles in 2008 based on estimates by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and their estimates are that VMT will rise to about 75 billion miles by 2020.
The Governor’s Climate Advisory Team recommended and legislation passed committing the state to an 18 percent reduction from a baseline of 75 million miles by 2020 and 50 percent by 2050; that means that by 2020 if the goal is met, Washingtonian’s will be driving only 61.5 billion miles per year—still, a lot of miles. But by 2035 it would mean a per capita drop of 22 miles per day by 2035 based on current population projections. Yet WSDOT is still building highways with money collected from cars. And the amount of money we’re talking about isn’t chicken feed—with billions going to a waterfront tunnel and replacing the 520 Floating Bridge.
If the state is truly going to get real about reducing carbon emissions and vehicle miles traveled, it is going to have to stop building more highways. That would mean putting more resources into more sustainable alternatives like trains, buses, and supporting strategies like transit-oriented development. And we ought to make better use of what we already have, increasing ride share programs, High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, and congestion pricing. The Climate Action Team’s transportation work group recommends that the state “align investments and operations with the achievement of the VMT and GHG reductions.” But right now spending the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into state coffers from taxing cars is going right into more infrastructure to support more car use, exactly the reverse of what state leadership says it wants. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to repeal the 18th amendment and perhaps put something in its place that requires the state to align its transportation priorities and spending with its driving and carbon emission goals.