Gas tax 'grab bag' faces skeptical voters - $7.7 billion project list leaves some perplexed


Brad Shannon
The Olympian

Washington State - 8/12/02 - If voters give their blessing to Referendum 51 this fall, it will propel billions of new dollars into fixing many of the state's biggest traffic snarls.

The biggest two: a massive widening of Interstate 405 through Bellevue, and the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle. Each could cost $10 billion and will need additional local and federal tax money to be completed.

But Ref. 51, which the Legislature agreed to put on the Nov. 5 ballot as a compromise, promises to do even more. It would raise $7.7 billion over 10 years by increasing several taxes, including a 9-cent-a-gallon jump in the state's gasoline tax.

The new revenue would pay for dozens of smaller projects, including three bike and foot bridges for the Chehalis Western Trail near Olympia. It would pay the first $85.2 million to widen Interstate 5 south of Maytown.

The measure would send money to Intercity Transit in Thurston County and Mason Transit in Shelton, and pay for park-and-ride lots and other commuting alternatives.

Of special interest to commuters headed north from South Sound, Ref. 51 would pay for carpool lanes that would begin in Tacoma and run north to Tukwila.

Advocates say that would be a huge step toward completing a carpool system extending through the central Puget Sound region.

A grab bag?

Even so, the proposal faces skepticism -- and not just from environmentalists who think it's too heavy on roads or that its 10-year commitment of $819.8 million for public transportation is too light.

Some regard the referendum's project list as a scattershot approach to reducing Washington state's highway congestion, which is getting especially worse in the central Puget Sound region.

"I saw the project list on the Internet. It's a grab bag of multimillion-dollar projects," said Jose Dominguez, who joined nearly 20 readers of The Olympian for a panel discussion on Ref. 51.

"There's no timeline for any of them. When do they begin? Do they all begin at once?" Dominguez asked. "That's the concern I would have, because that would create more gridlock and congestion than doing one at a time or spreading them out."

Other members of the panel said they too are skeptical about what Ref. 51 will do for them and whether the state can deliver the projects it promises. Few voiced worries about the higher taxes on gasoline and car purchases that Ref. 51 would impose.

But many panelists said they want more than wider roads. They want everything from commuter rail options to bus systems that offer a timely alternative to driving.

Panelist Laura Moore of Tenino, who commutes to work in Renton, said she'd love to ride transit if there were more reliable connections.

Though Ref. 51 puts some money into alternative programs and will put $693.4 million into car pool lanes, Department of Transportation officials say the money won't be enough to complete major new transportation links.

"It's plain that Ref. 51, if it's passed, would provide some serious investment, and if it fails, it presents us with a fairly significant hole in the prospects for that investment," said state Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald, who is maintaining a publicly neutral position on the measure. "We know we can't put together all the highway, transit and rail connections the public would like to have."

A hard sell

Concerns voiced by the newspaper's 19 panelists echoed the skepticism of voters statewide, who opposed it 60 percent to 36 percent in a June poll by Elway Research. The pro-51 campaign says its own polling shows support at 52 percent and opposition at 40 percent, once respondents were told what is in the measure.

"Why aren't they presenting us with a transportation plan?" asked Robert Colclough, a Tumwater resident. Colclough grew up around Renton, left in 1979, and returned to the Puget Sound area about two years ago to what he thinks is little change in the state's strategy for fixing clogged highways.

Colclough says he'd like state policymakers to present him with a proposal that says, "This is what we are going to buy with the X amount of dollars that we are going to ask for, rather than saying, 'We want your money and we'll tell you later what you'll get for it.' "

Backers of Ref. 51 admit their referendum offers no "magic bullet" or grand design. Instead, Ref. 51 represents a political compromise in the Legislature, where advocates of roads clashed with backers of transit programs on a way to move ahead with projects that were considered priorities in communities across the state.

"It's going to address the most well-known gridlock," said Lily Eng, spokeswoman for the Taxpayers for Referendum 51 campaign that is being paid for mainly by the state's biggest business and labor interests. "That's one of the things we've been very honest about. Is Ref. 51 going to solve all the transportation problems? We never say it does. What we do say is, if we don't have Ref. 51, we can't even begin to address these (crowded and) dangerous roads."

"In my district, the highway that kills people is where it goes from four lanes to two lanes before it goes onto the interstate system," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, referring to state Route 20, which would be widened with Ref. 51 money.

Better than alternative

Backers of Ref. 51 --including Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and Republican Slade Gorton, the former U.S. senator and state attorney general -- say the alternative is to do nothing, and that would leave the state years behind in relieving traffic congestion.

As it is, megaprojects such as the expansion of I-405 near Bellevue won't get under way until 2005-07, and results won't come until some time after that.

"You need to start somewhere," Eng said.

MacDonald and other state transportation officials insist they have a vision for traffic corridors such as I-5. For instance, the I-5 corridor will eventually have car pool lanes from the Tacoma area north to Everett. Car pool lanes accommodate transit and high-occupancy vehicles in addition to cars.

Work on those projects will begin in 2003. Although Ref. 51 won't produce enough money to complete the car pool system, program development manager Aaron Butters of DOT said: "On many of those projects, we will build usable segments of highway with the available funding."

Other projects across the state will begin soon, too, according to MacDonald and other DOT officials.

Competing proposals

That isn't quieting the skeptics. But the Ref. 51 forces say they will give the public more information in coming weeks, including copies of the project list. The list is available on DOT's Web site, and Eng said her group is handing out paper copies at community meetings and other venues where campaigners are meeting the public.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has formed in opposition, calling itself "Citizens for Real Transportation Solutions," and it's beginning to seek money to mount its counter-campaign.

One of the opposition leaders is Peter Hurley, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. The coalition contends that construction of so many projects at the same time will lead to more gridlock in the short term, and long-term damage to habitat.

"What's wrong with Ref. 51 is, you can't build your way out of congestion," Hurley said. "There is a better way: putting more money into buses and trains, smart roads (including car pools and ramp meters), putting safety projects as a higher priority," Hurley said.

He said incentives such as bus passes and commute-trip reduction programs also are needed as part of turning DOT into an agency that moves people and goods rather than cars.

Hurley said the group has financial experts and others devising an alternative plan for solving transportation problems, including a way to pay for it. He predicted it will be released as early as next month with the goal of giving it to the Legislature in January for adoption -- or to take to the ballot in November 2003 as an initiative to the people.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman has another proposal in the mix -- an initiative to the Legislature that will repeal portions of Ref. 51 if it passes.

Eyman would devote the state's sales tax on vehicles to transportation, which Hurley and others warn will blow an even bigger hole in the state's general fund, which pays for schools, prisons and medical care for the poor.

Brad Shannon, political editor for The Olympian, can be reached at 360-753-1688 or beshanno@

What's in Ref. 51

Referendum 51 would raise about $7.8 billion over 10 years by:

- Increasing the 23-cent-a-gallon motor-vehicle fuels tax by 9 cents (5 cents Jan. 1, 2003; another 4 cents Jan. 1, 2004).

- Adding a 1 percent sales tax surcharge to new and used vehicle sales (starting April 1, 2003).

- Increasing weight fees for heavy trucks by 30 percent (15 percent Jan. 1, 2003; another 15 percent Jan. 1, 2004).

- Transferring the sales tax on highway construction into the multimodal transportation account starting in 2006.

- Issuing bonds backed by the revenue.

The referendum would spend that money in several categories:

- $5.56 billion for mobility, safety and freight improvements, including $3.5 billion for major projects, $1.1 billion for mobility/economic initiatives projects, $693.4 million for carpool lanes, $101.9 million for safety improvements, $6 million for roadway/structure preservation, $26.3 million for environmental retrofits (noise walls and fish passage) and $116 million for local freight mobility projects.

- $330 million for local programs, including $75 million directly to cities, $75 million directly to counties, $25 million for main street pavement programs, $55 million for county corridor congestion relief, $55 million for city corridor congestion relief, $30 million for rural economic vitality projects and $15 million for school safety enhancements.

- $688.1 million for ferries, including four new auto-carrying boats, $321.9 million for multimodal terminal and vessel preservation, $51.3 million for passenger-only ferries and terminals, and $41.5 million for passenger-only operations.

- $294 million for rail, including $138.6 million for state portion of capital improvements, $27.5 million for state portion of operating costs, $94.6 million for freight-rail assistance, $31 million for Seattle-to-Everett track improvements and $2.3 million for Washington Fruit Express.

- $819.8 million for public transportation, including $80 million for park-and-ride lots (half flexible funds, half from restricted sources), $100 million for commute-trip reduction programs, $39.8 million for vanpools, $75 million in rural mobility grants, $75 million for paratransit, $450 million directly to local transit agencies.

- $1.46 billion in debt service on bonds.

On the Web

- Complete list of projects included in Ref. 51: Washington State Department of Transportation,

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