RAYMOND — In a nod to recent flooding in Pacific County, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited with state Transportation Department employees on Feb. 12 to hear about their concerns and reassure them he values the work they do.
Pacific was one of 25 Washington counties included in a Feb. 5 gubernatorial emergency proclamation due to flooding and winter weather after a series of storms in the area began around Jan. 20. As of Feb. 5, the damage total to road infrastructure was estimated at more than $3 million.
Raymond Maintenance and Operations Superintendent Clark Sexton called it business as usual for this time of year in Southwest Washington. He said Inslee’s visit was appreciated and Sexton was able to share concerns while also hearing about Inslee’s forecast for what aid could be provided to the department.
“He didn’t come in politicking,” Sexton said.
The proclamation directs state agencies to use state resources to assist affected communities. It also allows the state to apply for federal Department of Transportation funds to repair roadways.
“We’re just going to try to get by doing what we do, working for the safety of our customers and our employees,” Sexton said.
The visit with transportation workers had two purposes, the governor’s office said: To hear from the workers during one of their more trying seasons; and to reassure them he knew the maintenance budget wasn’t what it should be, but he values what the maintenance department does in keeping Washington moving.
Inslee also stopped at four high schools in Grays Harbor and Pacific County to talk about college affordability.
Inslee spoke about a number of different transportation-related issues. He touched on the U.S. Supreme Court decision to leave in place a lower court order that the Washington state government pay for the removal of culverts blocking fish migration in a 14-county area around Puget Sound. The state must fix about 7,000 miles worth of culverts by 2030.
Both the Transportation Department and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are working to address barriers to fish passage.
Inslee also discussed the transportation budget. The Department of Transportation budget is at the center of several controversies stemming from the 2019 election. Part of the reason for Inslee’s visit was to reassure maintenance workers he does not favor new construction projects over maintenance of existing infrastructure, the governor’s office said. But after Initiative 976, which limited car tab fees to $30, the transportation budget is looking at a cut of about $500 million for 2020 and 2021.
That initiative was challenged in court by a coalition of Washington cities, but a King County Superior Court judge rejected most of the legal challenges on Feb. 12, including an argument the car tab measure was unconstitutional. Two issues are still being argued in court. It is unclear if the Washington Legislature will address car tabs in the 2020 session.
Inslee’s move to veto one line of the transportation budget during the 2019 Legislative Session is also being challenged in court. Inslee vetoed a line that said fuel type could not be a factor in the grant selection process for local transportation department applications.
The intent of the line was to help transit agencies that are not yet able to make the transition to zero-emission vehicles. The veto could hurt chances for transit agencies like Pacific County’s to get some of the $200 million in grants offered through the state’s public transportation program. The Washington State Legislature sued Inslee over the veto in August 2019. The next hearing on that issue is scheduled March 20 in Thurston County Superior Court.
When asked how Inslee might help counties to afford to make the switch to electric power, he acknowledged upfront costs might be more, but overall the switch to electric power would save counties money in the long run.
“It’s a plug essentially, it’s a plug,” Inslee said. “Most small communities have access to electricity.”
Pacific Transit Manager Rich Evans said the issue is more complicated than that. With a small fleet that needs to be able to often switch buses out from routes, having one electric bus running one route isn’t cost efficient. And the transit system would need locations to build multiple charging stations along its routes.
Pacific Transit’s shortest route is about 200 miles, which is about how far an electric bus can go in ideal conditions, he said. While Evans isn’t opposed to the idea of electric buses, he wants the technology to catch up to diesel before he is forced to make the switch.
“I just don’t think he understands electric buses enough and their limitations,” Evans said.
Inslee’s focus is on the big picture of reducing emissions, because it is a dire threat to local communities that pales in comparison to any other, he said.
“It’s just a simple fact of life — we’re either going to reduce carbon pollution or we’re not going to have salmon or crab or oysters,” Inslee said. “And that is just a scientific reality. If people want to argue with this, don’t argue with me, argue with the scientists.”