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Originally published November 17, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified November 18, 2012 at 10:55 AM

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Op-ed: Preserve the state transportation that we have

If there is one “great big thing” that is needed now, more than ever, it is to maintain and preserve the system we have, writes guest columnist Paula Hammond.

Special to The Times

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IS there one “great big thing” that could be built to eliminate congestion? If only things in transportation were that simple. There isn’t one project or one investment that will solve the congestion that keeps us from getting to jobs, school or home on time or delays getting goods to market.

We aren’t at gridlock 24/7 because we have a tremendous multimodal system throughout the state, including:

•More than 18,000 state highway lane miles supporting 87 million vehicle miles a day and the movement of $37 million of freight every hour;

•More than 3,600 bridges and structures;

•The nation’s largest ferry system, serving 23 million passengers a year;

•A rail system serving nearly 850,000 passengers in 2011;

•More than 1,000 miles of bike and pedestrian paths statewide.

•Thirty-one local transit systems, providing 212 million passenger trips annually;

•Some 118,000 lane miles of city streets and county roads.

If there is one “great big thing” that is needed now, more than ever, it is to maintain and preserve the system we have. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Connecting Washington Task Force recognized this need, telling the state Legislature in January that without additional funding, the quality of our transportation system will decline and is not keeping pace with future demands.

Unfortunately, our ability to preserve and maintain our assets is in serious danger. Projected increases in population and freight movement, coupled with flat or declining transportation revenues, are placing a tremendous strain on the state’s ability to maintain and preserve our transportation system.

The state’s ferry system remains critically underfunded and is not sustainable. The long-term health of the national Highway Trust Fund suggests a decline in federal dollars is on the horizon. Fuel consumption is flat, due to more fuel-efficient vehicles, changing driver behaviors and a weaker economy. Gas-tax increases in 2003 and 2005 benefit the economy with $16.3 billion in bonded transportation investments, but the ongoing tax revenues are dedicated to debt repayment for the next 30 years. The problems are compounded by increasing expenditure pressures from higher fuel and materials prices, regulatory changes and increasing labor costs.

The bottom line is that we are about $375 million a year short of the revenues needed just to maintain, operate and preserve our highway, ferry and rail systems at current levels of services. Without new investments in the care for our existing system, we will fall far enough behind on our preservation work that some facilities will be beyond basic repair. Freight movement will be restricted on some of our state bridges and structures. The ferry system’s aging assets will be stretched beyond their useful lives, increasing the risk of failure and interrupting service.

While we come to grips with this rather bleak picture of our transportation future, there is a road map for addressing congestion. Our three-part Moving Washington strategy guides our budgeting and investment decisions and stays true to our core responsibility to maintain and operate a safe transportation system.

First, we look for ways to make a corridor operate more efficiently, perhaps using ramp meters, active traffic-management technology and incident-response teams. We also search for ways to manage the demand through the use, for example, of express toll-lane corridors, improved traveler information or public-transportation alternatives. Finally, we strategically add capacity in a prudent way that provides the right solution, at the right time and in the right place — no more, no less.

While maintaining and preserving our assets is important, we also have key economic corridors in need of project completion or new investments. These include key freight and traveler corridors such as Interstate 90 Snoqualmie Pass, Highway 520 from Seattle to Redmond, the Columbia River crossing between Vancouver and Portland, replacement of 60-year-old Interstate 5 between Olympia and Everett, completion of the Interstate 405 corridor, and extension of Highways 509 and 167 for port access.

The needs are great — and must be met. A reliable and efficient transportation network lies at the core of Washington’s economic vitality and outstanding quality of life. Transportation investments create living-wage jobs, spur economic recovery, promote vibrant communities, and provide the backbone that helps businesses thrive in a recovering economy.

Paula Hammond is secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation in Olympia.

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