“I mean, it needs to be replaced,” the Democratic governor said in an interview this week in Washington, D.C.
With federal money for highways set to dry up June 30, Gregoire fears that the extreme partisanship of members of Congress is threatening the state’s ability to maintain both its roads and its finances.
“I don’t know that, collectively, they have an understanding of the impact it has outside, in a state,” Gregoire said.
Unless Congress acts in the next five weeks, Gregoire said, the state’s mega-projects “are all at risk,” including the upgrade of the Columbia River Crossing between Vancouver and Portland, as well as plans to replace the floating bridge between Seattle and Bellevue and the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle’s waterfront.
She said she also is worried that the state’s financial condition will take another hit later this year if Congress replays the 2011 drama over whether to increase the nation’s debt limit. She said it lessened consumer confidence in the state last year.
“I’m afraid of whether it will trigger the states back into a recession, or stymie us in our recovery,” she said. “What degree it will hit us is the only question, not whether it will hurt us. I have clear evidence.”
For Gregoire, the link between the state’s finances and congressional wrangling became obvious in August, when members nearly shut down the government in a dispute over whether to lift the cap on the national debt.
In September, Gregoire said, the state’s economic forecast decreased by $1.4 billion as consumers responded by spending less. And she said that hit hard in a state that has no income tax and relies on sales-tax receipts to pay for its government services.
“We were recovering,” she said. “We were seeing strong signs things were working. We had consumer confidence building.”
After the showdown in Congress, she said, consumer confidence “just plummeted” in Washington state: “You talk to small businesses, and they will tell you the doors just didn’t open.”
If Congress doesn’t muster the votes to pass a new highway bill, Gregoire said, states will get stuck with higher costs caused by the delay of their construction projects.
Jennifer Ziegler, the governor’s transportation policy adviser, said state officials fear that federal aid for highway funding could be cut by almost 80 percent in 2013 if Congress does not act to keep its highway trust fund solvent. She said that would force the state to defer work on 1,340 miles of pavement, 34 safety projects and eight other bridge-replacement projects, along with smaller electrical upgrades and plans to replace culverts and traffic signals.
To prevent that from happening, Ziegler said, the state is backing a Senate highway bill that would send an additional $44 million to Washington for its projects next year.
While members of the House and Senate have been bickering over a transportation bill for months, a House-Senate conference committee is trying to negotiate a bill for a final vote next month.
Gregoire, who will leave the governor’s office in January, had other issues on her mind during a quick trip to the nation’s capital this week.
On Capitol Hill, she and Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who replaced Gregoire as the chairman of the National Governors Association, lobbied senators to oppose budget cuts proposed for the Air National Guard.
Gregoire called the Department of Defense cuts “unacceptable” for Washington state, saying it would result in the elimination of an entire Air National Guard unit now serving in Afghanistan. And she said it would make it more difficult for states to use National Guard equipment to respond to emergencies.
“Nobody is thinking about the domestic role that they play,” she said.
Gregoire, who this year signed a bill approving same-sex marriages in Washington, said President Barack Obama took a “gutsy” move by backing gay marriage. She predicted that the president’s support will help proponents in November if opponents of gay marriage can gather enough signatures to force a public vote on the new state law.
Gregoire said she’s expecting the issue to go to voters. And while gay marriage has never survived a vote at the state level, “I’m optimistic that in November we’ll be the first state to do it at the ballot,” she said.