Transportation projects will suffer if Inslee shifts cash to protect fish

Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat, represents the 27th Legislative District.
Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat, represents the 27th Legislative District. Washington State Legislative Sup

This session, Washington lawmakers made tremendous strides to protect our environment, passing historic measures on clean power, green transportation and electric vehicles along with record-breaking funding to protect salmon and orcas.

We also funded a new hybrid-electric ferry to begin upgrading our aging ferry system and advanced critical road projects, including major work on state Route 167 and Interstate 405.

But our work is never finished. The needs of our state, and the people we represent, are always greater than the resources available.

For example, we aren’t finished with the job of removing fish-blocking culverts.

You may not have heard about this issue. Culverts are the passageways, typically beneath roads and highways, that allow water to pass, but they can be obstacles for fish trying to reach spawning grounds or the ocean.

A federal court ordered that a large number of state-owned culverts be fixed by 2030 to comply with tribal fishing rights.

Of the estimated 2,000 culverts on highways and other property run by the state Department of Transportation, roughly 1,000 need to be removed; 415 are required to be fixed by 2030 and the other 577 corrected at the end of the culvert structure’s lifespan or as part of a nearby transportation project.

Getting this done is important for our salmon and orcas and to keep our word when it comes to respecting tribal treaties.

But the price tag for the state is huge: $3.7 billion. For comparison, the entire two-year state transportation budget we just passed is a little under $10 billion.

Some fish-blocking culverts are on private property. Forest landowners have removed thousands of these barriers and are on track to finish in the next few years. Other culverts belong to cities and counties, who may ask for state help.

Gov. Jay Inslee clearly cares deeply about culverts and is impatient to get the job done. Recently, he took funds that lawmakers appropriated in the transportation budget for other projects and shifted the money toward removing culverts – a move that might not pass muster if challenged in the courts.

I understand the governor’s urgency about something he cares about. But we have to do this right.

His approach won’t fix the problem. It’s not wise to risk entangling his funding shift in a possible court case, and it doesn’t help to point fingers at lawmakers who’ll be working on this issue, and voting for budgets and legislation, next session.

Finding the $3.7 billion needed to remove fish barriers in the next decade will require teamwork and cooperation. A problem of this magnitude requires building consensus—in the House and the Senate, and among major stakeholders—behind a stable funding source.

The governor did not identify a workable funding source in his 2020-21 funding proposal, nor did he suggest transferring funds from I-5 improvements at JBLM or other projects while we were in session.

Funding for a problem this large isn’t something he can dictate from the governor’s mansion or fix with a press release.

True leadership is about listening to each other and working together to solve common problems. That’s what we did this year on the transportation budget and capital budgets, both of which passed with nearly unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats in both chambers.

Collaboration and cooperation to solve tough problems doesn’t make for splashy headlines. But it gets results for the people we represent in the great state of Washington.

Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) is the chair of the Washington state House Transportation Committee.