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.

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  • 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.