By Craig Groshart
Sen. Patty Murray knows the impact of growth. As a child growing up in Bothell, she remembers the sign as people entered the city: Population 998.
“And look at it now,” she marvels of the city that now has more than 30,000 residents.
All that growth is wonderful for the economy, she said, but it has crated a “huge transportation problem.”
Fortunately, Murray is well-positioned to do something about it.
As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Murray’s job is to write the nation’s transportation funding bill every year. That’s a billion-dollar task.
Among other things, she helps direct funding to maintain and improve the interstate highway system, modernize airports, expand public transit in urban and rural areas, and invest in transportation research and safety programs.
“You have a community that’s growing,” Murray said of this region, “and we’re paying attention to it.”
Murray has been the state’s Congressional leader in securing federal funding for Sound Transit, including a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) in 2003 which secured $500 million in federal funding for the Link Light Rail project in Puget Sound.
She also has brought nearly $700 million to the state for roads, transit, shipyards and ferries in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Murray doesn’t do it in a vacuum. When she sits down with mayors and business interests from around here, she tells them, ‘you guys have to prioritize what’s important for you,’” Murray said.
“If people can’t agree, there’s a lot of other communities who want the funds,” Murray added.
However, these days, those funds are become more and more scarce as the federal government faces the same recession as every other government agency – and everyone else, for that matter.
At the federal level, the push and pull is between urban and rural, transit and highways, bike trails considered or not.
“It’s a funding formula battle,” Murray noted. “It’s not partisan. You fight for the most you can get for your state.”
The bottom line for Murray and others in Congress is that “we don’t have enough gas-tax receipts,” she said.
More fuel-efficient cars are being produced, people are driving less, those who are laid off aren’t driving much at all. With less gasoline being consumed, less money flows into the federal treasury, meaning less is available to help pay for local transportation projects.
If you’re in Congress, there aren’t any easy answers, Murray said.
How do you raise the gas tax in a recession?” Murray asked. The answer is, you don’t.
Congress needs a plan that enough members with enough courage will vote for, she said, “or we cut everybody back.”
That alternative, she noted, “would hurt Washington state like you wouldn’t believe. This is not going to be easy,” she added.
To complicate matters, the Senate Finance Committee also is involved and, as Murray noted, “they’re a little bit entangled with health care.”
The short-term answer probably will see the Senate pass several temporary extensions of the current transportation bill, Murray said.
Though much is made in the press of what some call “earmarks,” – remember the bridge in Alaska to nowhere? – that isn’t the boondoggle many think it is. In reality, Murray said, less that one percent of the federal highway money goes to special projects.
All senators are asked to give her committee priorities. She has hers, too.
“If it doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said of a request, “I go back to them and they have to really justify it before it gets into my committee.”
Murray said she does respect senators who say ‘yes, this is the priority. I’ve been to the community and talked to every one there. I’m willing to defend it on the Senate floor and I’m willing to stand for reelection on it because it’s that important to me.’
Still, she said, with a full Senate committee of competing points of view, “it’s not easy to get anything through.”
If somebody offers an amendment and it can’t be defended, “it comes out,” Murray said.
The going then gets tougher when the transportation bill goes to the Senate floor “where the same process happens.” Next, the Senate bill must be squared with a House version.
It’s pretty thoroughly vetted,” Murray said of the process.
If things weren’t bad enough, they’re made worse by the bad economy. The Transportation Committee, she said, has only half the money previously available for such projects.
“So I spend most of my time saying ‘no.’ before it ever comes before my committee,” she said.
Nonetheless, Murray has been able to find money for regional transit and transportation projects.
She secured over $110 million for Sound Transit’s University Link and Central Link segments. The money will help provide the first-ever light rail link between downtown Seattle and the University of Washington.
Another $9.3 million has been allocated for the Bellevue to Redmond Bus Rapid Transit project. That work will involve a 9.25-mile corridor that will run streetside between downtown Bellevue and downtown Redmond. The project will provide all-day, rapid transit between the two growing urban centers.
Other money will help establish bus rapid transit service between Tukwila and Federal Way.
Murray also has taken a tour of the Bel-Red Corridor in Bellevue that is envisioned to have light rail and a change of use from light industrial to residential and commercial.
With transportation needs still great but the money more limited, Murray says there’s more pressure on various groups to come together and agree on a project.
When they come in with business leaders, labor leaders, community leaders, when they’ve done their homework, “there is a much better chance of getting it financed,” Murray said.
Of course, she noted, sometimes that agreement doesn’t happen until the night before it has to because people don’t want to give in.
How does she get them to do it?
“I used to teach preschool,” she laughed.
Craig Groshart is editor of the Bellevue Reporter. He can be contacted at 425-453-4233 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.