Any rush hour commuter that has to use I-5 in Western Washington, especially near Seattle and Tacoma, is all too familiar with traffic congestion. It means getting up a little earlier, arriving home slightly later, anger management exercises, and sometimes even having enough time to listen to an entire Phish concert in one sitting.

If ordinary traffic wasn’t bad enough, occasionally much larger system failures become a nightmare for commuters. Washington drivers may have to take time-consuming detours for weeks when a risk-prone bridge collapses in a preventable accident, or find themselves marooned for hours after a highway expansion joint buckles.

While bottlenecks and disrepair seriously affect Washington drivers, the impact on the state’s freight movement network is even worse. In freight-dependent industries, economic success is directly influenced by the ability to pick-up, transport, and offload goods on time.

Now, disintegrating infrastructure, transportation budget shortages, and growing metro-region congestion near customers and ports – coupled with a projected rise in demand for freight movement – pose a bracing challenge for one of Washington’s most important industries and the state’s ability to remain competitive.

Stretched Thin and Strained 

A recently-issued draft update of Washington State’s Freight Mobility Plan finds much of the current surface transportation infrastructure in Washington is stretched thin and expected to become much more strained, from increased demand and underfunded maintenance.

What’s at stake economically? The draft update of freight mobility plan, from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), reports that “Washington jobs in freight-dependent industries (including wholesale and retail, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and agriculture/timber and wood products) grew by 2.6 percent, from 1.20 million jobs in 2011 to 1.23 million jobs in 2012.  In 2012, total imports and exports were valued at $123.2 billion and gross business income for freight-dependent industries totaled $450 billion.”

By Road, Rail and Water, Major Growth in Demand Seen 

Demand is predicted to grow substantially. The draft update to the freight mobility plan projects that between 2011 and 2030, trucked freight tonnage per year in Washington will increase 80% from 335.6 million tons. Waterborne freight tonnage will increase 26% from 34.3 million tons, multimodal freight such as truck-to-rail will increase 77% from 38.5 million tons, and air freight will increase 153% from 172.8 thousand tons.  In addition, between 2010 and 2035, rail freight in Washington is expected to more than double its tonnage moving a total of 260 million tons per year.

Freight by truck accounts for the largest percentage of tonnage moved through Washington. Maintaining and expanding Washington’s highway system will be critical to accommodate the predicted increase in freight volume.

Poor Funding for Maintenance 

Unfortunately, current methods of funding highway maintenance and expansion are failing. Federal and Washington state transportation funding relies heavily on gas taxes, which are levied on a per-gallon basis. That’s increasingly out of sync with rising fuel economy and the gradual spread of hybrids and electric vehicles. Between 2007 and 2023, the reduction in fuel consumption is expected to decrease total gas tax revenue in Washington by more than $5 billion.

WA Road Upkeep to Take a Big Hit 

The WSDOT report projects a 52 percent cut in highway maintenance and preservation over the next four years based on this decrease. This means that even though more than 3,700 Washington highway miles are due or past due for preservation projects, WSDOT will only be able to fund 1,100 of them between 2013-2015.

Burning Dollars In Heavy Traffic 

Road congestion hits the freight network hard because it burns fuel and lengthens trip times, resulting in higher costs. Heavy traffic is already a major problem along I-5, I-405 and State Highways 167, 509, and 99.  Even I-90 near Spokane has problems with congestion at peak hours. The freight mobility plan draft update estimates that a 20% increase in congestion would cost Washington 27,250 jobs and $3.3 billion in economic output (per year, in 2011 dollars).

Key Projects Underfunded in Seattle, King County, Tacoma, Spokane 

High-priority capacity expansions to the system are also underfunded. Key projects to freight stakeholders in Puget Sound include the eastward extension of SR 167 from SR 512 in Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma, and linking SR 509 from Sea-Tac Airport south and east to I-5. WSDOT currently reports that the SR 509 project requires an additional $1.3 billion, and SR 167 another $1.5 billion.

Another $2 billion is also needed for pavement fixes on I-5 in Seattle. Of this, only $113 million has been secured. In addition, $1.3 billion is needed for the planned new US-395 corridor near Spokane. Then-Governor Christine Gregoire’s Moving Washington Forward Task Force reported that $50 billion was needed optimally to improve and preserve transportation infrastructure between 2012 and 2022, and recommended a minimum of $21 billion.

The legislature has been considering an 11.5 cent-per gallon hike in the gas tax that would raise more than $10 billion, but it failed in the State Senate where the majority pressed for more transportation budget and policy reforms in return for new revenue.


The Freight Mobility Plan suggests three potential funding mechanisms, drawn from an evaluation by the National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP).

  • A Fuel Tax Surcharge. Aimed at targeting freight highway users, it would increase the diesel tax and at the same time increase tax refunds or credits for non-freight vehicles.
  • A Road Usage Charge (RUC). Two different methods of charging users for miles driven were evaluated by the NCFRP. The first was a flat mileage fee based on the class of vehicle. The second included additional variables such as congestion pricing based on time of day.
  • Federal registration fees would be expanded for all freight trucks.

A special state study effort funded by the legislature continues to explore transitioning to a RUC, which would be based on miles driven rather than gallons of gas consumed. Eleven western states looking at an RUC individually have joined a consortium to foster collaboration, and at least three more are expected to join. Developments in the two states most at the forefront on RUCs, Oregon and Washington, indicate movement is away from mandating an on-board GPS device in vehicles although that approach could be part of the RUC compliance menu some states adopt.

Transportation Chairs See Need For Change 

Chair of the Washington House Transportation Committee, Judy Clibborn (D-41st), said “if we don’t pass a gas tax, that increases the chance of a road usage charge sooner.” During the next session, Clibborn is hoping to explore a RUC pilot program. The program would help test how to collect the charge, what the broad effects of the switch would be, and how to phase in an RUC while phasing out the gas tax. Clibborn is optimistic about the potential of an RUC to be both be fair and sustainable. “Everyone gets to pay their share,” she said.

Co-Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Curtis King (R-14th), also acknowledged that the “gas tax is something we are going to have to change.” He did note that an RUC would pose implementation challenges, such as whether and how to charge out-of-state drivers and Washingtonians that drive in other states. While the details are figured out, King predicted one more increase in the Washington gas tax. “It’s going to take time to develop an alternative system and get it implemented,” he said.

The transition could be complicated, but legislators and the chairman of the state’s transportation commission acknowledge the potential for better maintaining and modernizing roads via drivers paying for miles actually traveled, rather than gallons bought at the pump. If this problem isn’t solved, Washington’s freight industry will continue to suffer. Hybrids, electric vehicles, and other high-mileage cars and trucks may be environmentally responsible. But without a full and fair accounting for their wear and tear on the system, they’re the vehicular equivalent of that friend who comes over every week and drinks your beer without ever offering to chip in for a six-pack.

WSDOT is collecting public comments on the draft update to the state’s freight mobility plan until August 8th, 2014 at 5pm. Comments can be emailed to


Generate Long-Term Funding to Maintain and Improve Surface TransportationPLAN Washington Transportation Strategy #1

Make Washington a Magnet for Tourism, Investment and International TradePLAN Washington Economic Development Strategy #3