Despite seasonal challenges, WSDOT stays within 3% of its annual preservation budget

Aug 6, 2020

In processing documents from a public disclosure, I came across information that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was not spending all of the preservation money that the legislature appropriated for the fiscal year. This struck me as odd, since WSDOT frequently emphasizes the need for more money for preservation and maintenance in the transportation budget. Why ask for more money if the agency isn’t spending the money it has?

I reached out to WSDOT and they provided a helpful, thorough clarification that is worth sharing.

For context, the legislature “provides a two-year spending authorization for the preservation capital program to preserve (or extend the useful life of) various highway system assets (e.g. roads, bridges, rest areas, storm water systems, culverts, signals, etc.). Allotments within the two-year period define the department’s plan to spend that appropriations.”

For fiscal year 2020, which ends halfway into the year in June, WSDOT had an initial total preservation budget allotment of $334.6 million (this was updated after the legislative session). The agency spent all except about $10 million. That is a lot of money, but for perspective, it is also 3% of their annual budget, which the agency cannot exceed. Staying within 3% of a massive budget is commendable.

One of the challenges WSDOT pointed out to me their email is that “in addition to staying within appropriated amounts, using cash flow as the basis of managing spending is further complicated based on the fact that the fiscal period ends in the middle of our construction season (summer). Bad winters and wet springs can lead to delays in delivering our projects for the first part of the construction season (work to be done before the end of June) but could easily be caught up before the end of the construction season arrives (generally in the late October timeframe, weather dependent).”

In other words, WSDOT has to juggle the end of the fiscal year being immediately after our coldest, wettest seasons – but is able to catch up through summer and early fall. They do this by taking what money they don’t spend by June in the first fiscal year and planning to use it in the second fiscal year. As WSDOT clarified, “it is planned and committed to be fully spent and will occur during the construction season; just not on the same side of the June 30 fiscal year cut-off date.”

Finally, WSDOT pointed out that “a $10 million cash flow delay is small in comparison to the billions additional needed over the next 10 years to maintain the condition of our roads and bridges to a state of usefulness comparable to what Washingtonians have enjoyed and expected in the past.” This is true - and it’s why prioritizing preservation and maintenance continues to be a policy recommendation we support. Though we disagree with WSDOT’s ideology on additional road capacity, it is great that the agency prioritizes keeping our existing assets functional and safe.

Here is additional reading on what WSDOT is doing to maintain our state highways and aging bridges.