I-1631 Threatens Effective Mitigation Measures for Transportation’s Environmental Impacts
By Victor Bishop
Reducing carbon emissions is a laudable goal, but Initiative 1631 would make it harder to accomplish, due to the proposal’s extraordinary expense and lack of focus. There are more effective ways to protect our environment than I-1631’s massive tax increase, unaccountable politically-appointed board, taxpayer funded multi-billion dollar slush fund and nebulous plan.
We believe our state’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions should instead focus on reasonable, data-driven actions targeting the transportation sector, the leading contributor of carbon emissions. For decades, the failed policy of deliberately increasing congestion to force people out of their cars hasn’t worked – traffic continues to get worse while we spend billions on failed plans and policies to the detriment of our region’s quality of life. How much more congestion, and resultant pollution, must we endure?
Instead of 1631’s deeply flawed energy tax, any meaningful actions must include increasing road capacity to reduce congestion in our urban areas, while accommodating future growth. For example, finishing the Interstate 405 Master Plan would reduce per vehicle-mile gas consumption, resulting in less pollution. This capacity could be in place as near- or zero-emission vehicles become the norm. Finishing I-405 now would also help make carpools, vanpools and buses more attractive as alternatives when traveling this corridor.
In Western Washington, traffic congestion creates some of the most significant environmental impacts we face. Reducing both carbon emissions and congestion is possible if tax resources are applied to road enhancements. Using the state’s gas tax (protected by the state constitution to be used for highway purposes), itself being the best carbon tax one can think of, is the essential source for capacity improvements and maintenance and preservation enhancements of our road system. All passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, emergency vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians (over 99 percent of our total daily person trips) use our roads. I-1631 would gut the ability to address this.
Road expansion provides more environmental benefits than just carbon emission reductions. Overall air quality would improve as less fuel is consumed. Accommodating urban growth with adequate capacity, the fundamental tenant of the Growth Management Act, helps prevent sprawl, preserving massive tracts of carbon-sequestering trees. Water quality would also improve. Most new projects not only protect water quality from their increased surface area, they also fix past problems caused by inadequate surface water management from older designs. The result: cleaner water in our streams, lakes and Puget Sound.
Perhaps the most urgent environmental benefit I-1631 threatens is the state’s ability to replace fish culverts. Spawning habitat for salmon, which provide critical food for endangered orca whales, is blocked by hundreds of illegal culverts. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ordered the state to fix these, at an estimated cost of $3.7 billion. Passage of I-1631 could make it nearly impossible to raise this money, due to the projected 57 cents per gallon gas tax increase I-1631 would cause. Using the state gas tax won’t be a funding option for environmentally beneficial road improvements if I-1631 passes. I-1631’s effective increase in gas taxes of 57 cents is greater than all state gas tax increases in history combined. Washington State’s gas tax, first imposed in 1921, is now 49.4 cents.
In addition to I-1631’s threat to environmentally beneficial transportation investments, I-1631’s passage would worsen the already difficult challenge of just maintaining our roads and bridges. The traveling public’s safety is at stake. The state alone estimates it needs an additional $550 million per year ($11 billion for 20 years) to repair unsafe and deteriorating roads and bridges. County and local roads throughout Washington need equivalent major investments to keep them safe.
We encourage everyone to consider I-1631’s unclear environmental effectiveness, as well as huge economic and opportunity costs. We believe I-1631’s threat to investments providing measurable reductions in the transportation sector’s environmental impacts is reason to pursue a better alternative. Vote “No” on I-1631.
Victor H. Bishop, P.E. is the chair of the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), a nonprofit group dedicated to relieving traffic congestion in the Puget Sound Region. He is a licensed transportation engineer, with 56 years of professional traffic engineering experience.