OLYMPIA, Wash. – Drivers will not find an ice cream shop along West Valley Highway South, near the Pacific-Algona border, but drivers there get daily servings of rocky road.
It is a whiplash-inducing stretch of bumpy, pothole-filled road that runs along Highway 167.
Rob Pedrini, who works along the road, has grown accustomed to weaving his vehicle around the giant divots, which once prompted police to pull him over and ask him if he had been drinking.
Pedrini had not been drinking.
“After he realized I was just trying to get out of the rough part of the road, he apologized and we shook hands,” he said.
King County would like to fix that road and dozens of others, but says the money just is not there because the county is generating less from property and gas taxes. In fact, the county fears that 72 miles of roadway will fail if they are not reconstructed and 35 bridges could close in the next 25 years.
“We’re not able to maintain the roads in decent condition, so this is going to affect everyone,” said Brenda Bauer, director of the county’s road services division.
The problem is so bad, county leaders and transportation experts frequently point out that some roads could be returned to gravel.
“I can’t believe this, but that’s actually county policy,” King County councilmember Larry Phillips recently proclaimed at a news conference.
It is just a taste of the concerns plaguing transportation departments across Washington, which is why there is a growing movement to push state lawmakers for more funding at all levels.
“We need to have a sense of urgency about it,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
Earlier this year, Clibborn introduced a 10-year, $10 billion transportation revenue package. Some of it would go toward fixing local roads and much of it would fund major projects across the state, like adding lanes to the most congested part of I-405 between Renton and Bellevue, completing State Route 167 and connecting it with Highway 509 in Tacoma, and reducing congestion along I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“The projects that we’re trying to do are linking us to being competitive in the world,” Clibborn said.
But all of it comes with a price. Lawmakers are exploring whether to raise the gas tax ten cents – 2 cents a year over a 5-year period. They are also discussing whether to charge more fees and taxes when drivers renew their car tabs. Local governments, like King County, could get permission to collect even more money from car tabs to fix their roads and funding transit service.
While Rep. Ed Orcutt, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, is willing to at least discuss giving local governments some funding options, he is hesitant to raise car tab fees and is not eager to rush a massive transportation revenue package this year.
“The first thing we need to do is fix the problems in our transportation system,” he said. “Basically put, we need to fix it before we can fund it.”
Orcutt pointed to costly change orders on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project and design errors that led to pontoon cracking on the new 520 floating bridge.
But Rob Johnson with the Transportation Choices coalition does not think Washington can afford to wait much longer on many of these projects.
“Suddenly you’re going from just repaving a road to having to reconstruct a road, and the difference between those two is astronomical,” Johnson said.
Clibborn recently said she is working on a smaller version of her proposal, hoping to come up with a package that can pass both houses this year. A car registration tax tied to the value of a vehicle and a $25 fee on bicycles will likely be dropped from her plan.