Washington state’s costly culvert catastrophe

In the annals of Olympia’s failure and mismanagement, few disasters can match the one happening right now. The state’s program to replace barriers for salmon and steelhead migration to spawning grounds has spiraled out of control, leaving Washington taxpayers on the hook for a massive bill.

You may have driven past some parts of this out-of-control program. Construction crews are replacing culverts, pipes that allow smaller streams and creeks to run under roads and highways, with larger pipes or bridges. These projects are intended to allow the streams and creeks to flow more naturally and to let spawning fish swim upstream to the gravelly areas where they like to lay their eggs. It’s an admirable goal. The problem is the cost.

During a recent legislative hearing at the state Capitol, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) admitted that its culvert-replacement program will cost $7.8 billion. That’s more than four times the $1.88 billion estimate provided in the court case. And more than double the $3.5 billion estimate from just a year ago.

This skyrocketing price tag isn’t just a slap in the face to fiscal responsibility. It’s a punch in the gut (another, really) to Washington’s working families — who will pay the price in higher fuel prices, grocery bills, and taxes.

How did this happen? To answer that, we need to go back a decade. In 2013, a federal court ruled in favor of a group of Native American tribes who filed a lawsuit over the state’s failure to maintain its culverts well enough for fish, mostly salmon and steelhead, to reach spawning grounds. The court ordered the state to develop a plan and schedule for replacing culverts in and around the Central Puget Sound region.

The state devised a plan, albeit somewhat tentatively, that progressed at a sluggish pace. In contrast, in 2018, a bipartisan group of state legislators came up with a proposal that would have completed the program. However, the governor rejected that proposal. A separate plan would have used federal COVID-relief money to fund culvert replacements. The governor and his supporters ignored that. Then, a few years later, the governor agreed to a poorly-drafted $3.5 billion proposal that allowed work to begin. At that point, some legislators raised questions about the reliability of the governor’s proposal. He dismissed our concerns.

So, we weren’t entirely surprised by WSDOT’s recent testimony. We expected cost overruns on the $3.5 billion estimate. But the amount of the overruns, more than twice price of the governor’s proposal, was shocking.

The chair of the state’s Senate Transportation Committee recently complained to the media that “tough choices” lie ahead as the culvert-replacement program pulls money away from other transportation projects. But this problem isn’t about money or budgets. It’s about a state bureaucracy plagued by poor oversight, insufficient project supervision, and decades of one-party control.

For years, as the culvert replacement obligation ballooned in cost, the governor, his bureaucrats at WSDOT, and his allies in the Legislature dithered. They whined about the court orders. They pointed fingers and tried to blame Olympia Republicans. In the meantime, the clock tolled.

At this point in time, each individual fish passage barrier removal averages a staggering $20 million — with some costing up to $100 million, due to complex circumstances like the need to purchase property or build new roads and roundabouts.

And is there any real return on these billions of dollars of Washington taxpayers’ money? When asked how many of the replaced culverts have resulted in more fish reaching spawning grounds, WSDOT officials said roughly half of the sites are seeing the fish return. But, in many cases, it will take years to see improvements in their numbers. Maybe.

So, where will the money come from to complete this sort-of-effective, out-of-control culvert-replacement project? Will Washington taxpayers be slapped with even higher taxes at the pump? Washington drivers are already facing the third-highest gasoline prices in the nation, behind Hawaii and California. Raising prices even higher will make driving impossible for many working Washingtonians.

There is a solution: The money generated from the governor’s unpopular cap-and-trade program, more than $2 billion in the last year alone, is not being allocated exclusively to transportation projects, as gas taxes are. Instead, this windfall is being spread across all three of the state’s primary budgets: operating, transportation and capital. Olympia should direct that money to the culvert-replacement program.

That would help cover the cost overruns. But it won’t fix the underlying problem: bureaucratic bungling and delay. These are more than just inconveniences; they are a betrayal of the public trust. Washingtonians deserve better — better oversight, better fiscal responsibility, and better management of state projects. The cost of these failures should not be borne by hardworking individuals and families already grappling with the economic fallout. It’s past time for a commitment to managing taxpayer dollars with the competence deserved.

State Representative Jim Walsh, 19th Legislative District
428 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7806 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000