On Dec. 28, 1896, a group of business leaders and public officials gathered at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to talk about how to build better roads in Washington. At the time, there was nothing in the state worthy of even being called a road, according to one man who attended the meeting.
The solution to their problem, according to the website HistoryLink.org, was a state-run transportation body to oversee road building.
So a few years after the so-called Good Highways Convention, some of those same leaders formed the Good Roads Association, a group that successfully lobbied the state Legislature to create a Highway Board in 1905. Eventually, the Highway Board became the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Thankfully, the condition of our roads isn’t nearly as dire as it was in 1896. We have many thousands of miles of good roads. But we also face some big challenges with respect to our transportation network, which makes it worth noting a couple of lessons from those early leaders.
First, they recognized that building a solid transportation network was an important enough challenge that it required investment from the whole state. That was true in 1896 and it’s true today.
And second, the business community helped create the state Department of Transportation.
It may seem hard to believe now, in an era where political camps seem divided between tax-and-spend liberals and small-government conservatives, but a group of leaders that included folks from the business community actually helped create a new branch of government.
Times are certainly different now, but investing in transportation infrastructure is still a wise decision for businesses. Doing so will create jobs, help businesses grow, and boost the overall economy.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see state lawmakers take another run at finding agreement on a transportation revenue package following their failure earlier this year.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, recently announced a slate of transportation reforms and a statewide listening tour to find out firsthand what the public could support in a transportation package.
It’s likely that voters will have the final say over any proposal, so it makes sense to include the public in the discussion now.
At the same time, a legislative task force is meeting to find out why transportation projects are so expensive in Washington — and how they could be made more efficient.
The committee, which includes a representative from the Association of Washington Business, is looking at everything from the state charging itself sales tax on transportation projects to permitting delays and unnecessary mitigation requirements and design errors.
Some of these government requirements that add costs to projects may be needed, but many are not. Reforming the system before lawmakers put more money into it is imperative to rebuilding trust with the public and getting more from each dollar we pay into it.
The group plans to produce a draft report by November and a final report to the Legislature by the end of December — 117 years after the gathering of the Good Highways Convention.
After all these years, state leaders are still trying to figure out how to build better roads, reduce traffic congestion, and improve mobility. And business leaders are still driving the discussion.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce.