Long term, transportation funding is school funding

‘Children before concrete” is one of the catchphrases of people who’ve been fighting transportation funding in the Legislature.

It’s a false choice. Smart investments in highway and transit infrastructure don’t steal money from schools and social welfare programs. They create jobs and expand the economy, helping pay for public services that benefit children and everyone else.

The 2015 Legislature will rightly focus on increasing public school funding, as mandated by the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. But this shouldn’t mean stiffing the state’s infrastructure needs. It’s not an either-or dilemma: Further investment in transportation is needed to fully fund public education over the long haul.

A recent study commissioned by the Washington Roundtable, a business group, demonstrates the point dramatically.

Washington’s highway infrastructure is now plagued by gaps and bottlenecks that strangle economic growth. The South Sound is all too familiar with two of them.

The worst – in fact, the worst in the state – is the five-mile stretch where state Route 167 was supposed to connect to Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma. Because the Legislature let the highway terminate at Puyallup, freight trucks from the port and other vehicles crowd into northbound I-5 to run a gantlet of traffic jams in King County.

Opening the direct connection to the Kent Valley and Interstate 90 would allow businesses to expand through the corridor and help the port remain competitive in a world where Pacific Rim shippers scrutinize the hours it takes their cargoes to reach their destinations. Failure to close the gap will drive commerce to British Columbia and Southern California, and throttle job creation in Washington.

The other South Sound chokepoint is the I-5 corridor from Tacoma to Lacey past Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Anyone who drives it knows what a nightmare it has become.

The Roundtable study, released last month, was done by the respected Boston Consulting Group. The big takeaway: A $7 billion investment in highway preservation and six jammed corridors – including SR 167 and JBLM – would yield $42 billion worth of economic benefit over 30 years.

That’s a conservative number. The consultants, for example, estimated that 184,000 jobs would be created by the necessary highway projects over 12 years. But they counted only positions that would be directly generated, not the secondary retailing and service jobs created when people have more money to spend.

Another conservative estimate: The projects would pump $2 billion of additional tax dollars into state and local governments over 30 years. As with the jobs, that doesn’t count payoff from broader economic growth.

The state saves nothing by letting its infrastructure slide. If it fails to preserve its roads and bridges, it will ultimately be forced to spend far more playing catch-up on deferred maintenance.

State economies are built on public infrastructure. Roads, rail, ports, water and power lines are the foundations of the industries that employ people and generate taxes for education and the social safety net. Infrastructure doesn’t divert school money – it creates it.