Think Federal Money Is Free? Look at Our Road System ...

Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial

12/12/02

It's always a chuckle when people at all levels of government talk about receiving federal funding as though it's "free" money.

To which we like to promptly point out that it's still taxpayers' money. In fact, most taxpayers pay most of their taxes to Uncle Sam.

There is no such thing as a free federal lunch, so beware of sweetheart deals. We're reminded of that in a story by The Associated Press earlier this week about the massive interstate highway system that was launched in the 1950s. Washington state, like everyone else, was and is a beneficiary in this modern transportation network linking all the states.

And the deal was swell. The interstate system was built mostly with 90-10 money $90 from Uncle Sam for every $10 from Washington's coffers. During the building of the interstate system, Washington got an average of $1.55 back in federal highway money for every dollar Washingtonians paid in federal gas taxes, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That's typical of large, Western states with relatively few people and many miles of road.

But then, as so often happens with that "free" federal money, the party eventually ended.

By 1995, Washington was down to getting 85 cents on the dollar in gas-tax collections. In the 2003-2005 transportation budget, federal money will make up just half of the state's construction budget. Federal money for the state Department of Transportation's operating expenses and capital investment will drop from $730 million in the current 2001-03 biennium to a projected $658 million in 2003-05.

Major road work is needed in various parts of the state, but don't even think about any more 90-10 money, even though those interstate strips of asphalt are still expensive to maintain.

Meanwhile, the state's ability to build projects with its own money always limited has dwindled.

As the road system's gotten bigger, so has the routine maintenance bill. The buying power of the state gas tax last raised in 1991 has been eroded by inflation and fuel-efficient vehicles. And the repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax in 2000 chopped hundreds of millions of dollars out of the transportation budget.

DOT coffers will be stretched just to cover highway maintenance costs.

This is another component of the multifaceted problem facing the Legislature next month in the wake of voter rejection of Referendum 51 last month. The referendum proposed a 9-cent increase in the gasoline tax to finance $7 billion in new road projects.

The state faces tremendous responsibilities in meeting transportation demands and needs.

And where's Uncle Sam when you need him?

Well, he's not packing any free lunches.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Robert Bickler, Sarah Jenkins and Bill Lee.

 

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