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Q&A: Rep. Jake Fey sounds off on the transportation revenue shortfalls to come

With Washingtonians homebound, the state is seeing the early stages of what will likely be a daunting transportation revenue shortfall. Ferry revenue is down about 45 percent and tolling revenues are down between 50 to 80 percent, depending on the location.

When the pandemic began worsening rapidly in March, legislators had just concluded a session in which they managed to temporarily address I-976 associated shortfalls. I called House Transportation Committee Chair, Rep. Jake Fey, to get a sense of how legislators are planning to deal with even more transportation revenue shortfalls.

MG: With the pandemic ongoing, what ideas are floating around for how to deal with the collapse of transportation revenue in Washington State and its impacts on future projects?

Rep. Jake Fey: We’ve made our revenue forecasts, if they don’t come through in any given year, you don’t get to use them; they’re lost forever. The longer this plays out the bigger impact this has on funding. Dealing with the budget for I-976, we just put a plug in the hole, so to speak, and found a way to get through. A lot of that impact was felt on transportation construction projects. Similarly, this situation will have an impact on transportation construction projects. I suspect it will take quite some time to get back to the revenue level we were at before the pandemic. We’re going to be losing revenues for some time. 

We know that tolling revenue is down 50-80% – a very substantial reduction and there will be a reduction in gas tax revenue. We’re not alone in this alone because this is something that is going to be felt by the operating budget. At this point, it’s really a matter of waiting to see how we can wrap our arms arounds this crisis, because it’s really a function of how long we need to stay home. On the bright side, Congress has talked about putting money out, at some point, for infrastructure. They haven’t been a big player in transportation funding fore some time at the state level, especially as it relates to road preservation and road constructions projects. So, that might provide some level of relief. 

MG: One aspect of this that is unique to Washington State is that due to I-976, as you mentioned, policymakers were already working to address a transportation revenue shortfall completely separate from the pandemic. And you mentioned that the solutions in place to stabilize the budget in response to I-976 are temporary ones. How do you balance both of these issues going forward?

JF: It’s a real dilemma we have. I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this to you, but we commissioned a study in the Joint Transportation Committee to look at what our needs are and what revenue options we might be able pursue. We’re looking at everything from the road usage charge to a carbon-based charge; you name it, it’ll be looked at.

But what I keep reminding myself is, we have some big funding needs apart from I-976 and apart from the pandemic. Whether it be the Columbia River Bridge or fish passage culverts for the trestle up in Snohomish County, there are projects all over that aren’t currently funded. And now we’re in a decreased revenue mode rather than being able to focus on methods to raise additional money for new projects. Not to mention the fact we’re way behind for preserving the infrastructure we already have. So, it’s pretty daunting. 

Most funding sources have a direct relation to transportation. Whether it’s car tabs, a gasoline tax, a road usage charge, carbon; it all has a direct relationship with transportation. We have much less flexibility than the operating budget; they’ve got a B&O tax, sales tax, property taxes, excise taxes, estate taxes, etc. We’re kind of boxed in when looking at transportation. As a result, we might have to look at something outside of transportation to provide some more stability. Although, if transit agencies were based on sales tax revenues you probably wouldn’t be feeling good right now, either. We’re going to have to see if there’s a way to get outside that box.

MG: In his press conference on Friday, Gov. Inslee mentioned that the way the federal government finally managed to restart the economy during the Great Depression was through a huge investment in public resources. Gov. Inslee cited mass transit projects as an area where he’d like to see significant investment. You touched on this a bit already, but can you talk about the role you think the federal government can play here?

JF: They can and they do play a role. It is an area where the federal government has participated in funding wise. But I think you have to look at it more broadly. The fish passage culverts alone is $3 billion of money we don’t have, and those are good construction jobs – they’re mostly Western Washington but a lot of them are in economically depressed areas in the Olympic Peninsula and south of that. There is an opportunity for fish passage to be a good federal investment to help us recover from the economic downturn. It also has a positive environmental effect. This is just to say, public transportation is not the only big investment that’s needed in the state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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