The ABCs of Washington state’s government
The Puget Sound’s transportation network poses a severe test of patience for Pierce County residents, and not just during the dozens of hours drivers spend stuck in traffic each year.
By now it’s common knowledge that a Sound Transit light-rail connection between Tacoma and points north won’t arrive here until 2030.
What’s less well known is that state Route 167, an unfinished corridor that has stymied the movement of goods and people between Tacoma and points east for decades, won’t be completed until 2031.
The Legislature wisely included this missing link in a massive statewide transportation package four years ago. SR 167 accounts for half of a $2 billion regional megaproject; the other half is designated for State Route 509 in King County.
Together, this mix of new pavement, ramps and interchanges is known as the Puget Sound Gateway. But scheduled completion is more than a decade away.
Fortunately, legislators have the power to build the Gateway on a shorter timeline, though it’s a tough sell politically; the state would have to impose full tolling earlier than planned and sell construction bonds based on the increased stream of toll revenue.
Transportation officials have drawn up three acceleration options, ranging from 2 to 4 ½ years. The option now being kicked around in Olympia splits the difference at three years; initial tolling would begin in 2025, full tolling would be in place in 2028 (instead of 2031) and the SR 167 connection would open in 2028 (instead of 2031).
At last, Pierce County’s patience may be rewarded.
It’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s an economic development issue, and it deserves bipartisan support.
Not only does the Puget Sound region stand to benefit, but so do Washington taxpayers. A WSDOT study determined $893 million in economic impact and $43 million in inflation savings by paying for the work sooner.
Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, is trying to round up votes in the House. We like his chances, since he’s in a position to broker deals as House Transportation Committee chair.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, is leading the fight in his chamber. Last week, he pushed for an amendment to a bill in the Senate Transportation Committee to allow toll revenues to be bonded. It failed, but some senators said they might support it later.
“The good news is that the groundbreaking for the project is going to happen this year, but when I tell constituents the project is not going to be done until 2031, they’re shocked,” Zeiger told the committee. “So I hope we can give them some assurance this year that we will accelerate the Gateway project.”
The unfinished four-mile section of SR 167 between Puyallup and Interstate 5 has been a major disruption to Washington commerce since work stopped on it in the late 1980s.
If the Port of Tacoma is Pierce County’s economic engine, then SR 167 is a damaged link in the chain that keeps the engine from breaking down.
Fix this link, and trucks will be able to transport cargo much faster in and out of Tacoma and Seattle port facilities, moving freight more reliably through the Kent and Puyallup valleys as far east as Chicago — and unclogging freeways for the rest of us.
Washington legislators took a bold step to do this in 2015 when they approved a landmark transportation funding package, anchored by a 11.7-cent gas tax increase. A big chunk of it is set aside for the Puget Sound Gateway.
What they didn’t do was authorize the new tolls that are needed to generate $180 million toward the total cost. Two bills in the Legislature this year would plug that gap. Senate Bill 5825 and House Bill 2132 would allow tolling for the Gateway project, make express toll lanes permanent on SR 167 and Interstate 405, and create separate revenue accounts for each.
Some lawmakers are philosophically opposed to expanding the web of toll collections in Washington. We understand where they’re coming from; tolls are an unpleasant pill to swallow. But they’re also an effective tool for building 21st century transportation infrastructure, and they’re more reliable than gas taxes in the age of electric vehicles.
The burden of tolls, along with the burden of taxes in general for this project, make it important for the state to hold contractors accountable through the use of incentives and other tools. Contractors should receive bonuses for early completion and penalties for missed deadlines.
Zeiger says he won’t support the larger tolling authorization bill unless it includes provisions for an accelerated completion of SR 167. Perhaps his quid pro quo will prove effective as negotiations proceed.
Whatever it takes to get it done, the local delegation should unite for the sake of economic competitiveness and quality of life.
It’s been said that patience is a virtue. But when you account for how long Pierce County residents have waited for a decent transportation system, they’re plenty virtuous already.