Senate GOP touts transportation overhaul

By DAVID AMMONS The Associated Press

2/6/03 7:37 PM

OLYMPIA, WA(AP) -- Senate Republicans on Thursday proposed a 12-point highway efficiency package -- including "McRest Areas" and opening car pool lanes to all -- as a way to restore public trust in the state's transportation system.

Their ideas range from abolishing the state's citizen Transportation Commission to allowing private operation of rest stops by McDonald's or other private vendors to opening more car pool lanes to all traffic.

Some are familiar Republican proposals sure to raise Democrats' hackles -- including easing prevailing wage and contracting-out laws. The plan also would take the state out of the rail and passenger-only ferry business. It would abolish funding for trails, bike paths and artwork.

But some of the central ideas already have cleared the Democratic-controlled House and stand a good chance of passing this year -- including performance audits of highway programs, direct gubernatorial control over the Department of Transportation and greater authority for the Legislature to choose projects.

The GOP plan -- if fully implemented and if the savings are used to pay off highway bonds
-- would finance $5.4 billion worth of projects, said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. That would be the equivalent of nearly a nine-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, he said.

The proposals are the first step in regaining public trust, following the landslide defeat of the Legislature's $7.7 billion transportation referendum in November, said Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland. He didn't want to talk about new revenue yet.

Some lawmakers predict a gas-tax increase of perhaps a nickel this session, but say the vote won't come until both houses have adopted a comprehensive set of accountability bills. The tax is now 23 cents a gallon, unchanged since 1991.

"We should be able to tell our state's residents that their money is being spent in a prudent manner," Benton said.

Senate Bill 5702 includes:

--Big changes in governance. The nine-member citizen commission, appointed by the governor but autonomous after that, would be eliminated. The governor would have power to hire and fire the transportation director and would have direct control over day-to-day work of the department. The Legislative Transportation Committee would decide on projects and oversee the agency. The commission now sets the priority list, using recommendations from the Legislature.

--Mandatory performance audits on all transportation programs.

--Contracting out. Most construction already is contracted out to the private sector. The bill would allow the agency to also contract out maintenance and other services.

--Prevailing wage changes. Smaller projects and those in rural areas could pay construction workers a lower hourly wage. This wouldn't apply to big projects, including those with federal money.

--Repeal of arts and trail spending. The plan would repeal requirements that one half of 1 percent of new construction dollars go for public art and three-tenths of 1 percent be spent on paths and trails.

--Repeal passenger rail program. The state now owns rail cars and subsidizes some Amtrak runs. Some Republicans said later that this part of the plan is likely to be dropped.

--Privatize rest areas. The plan would allow fast-food restaurants, gas stations or other businesses to run state rest areas.

--Cost-benefit studies. The department would be required to give highest priority to projects that move the most people and goods for the least amount of money.

--Sales tax shift. Instead of going to the general treasury for schools and other services, sales tax on road construction would be earmarked for highway projects. This amounts to about $30 million a year.

--Open more car pool lanes. The state soon will open some car pool lanes in the Seattle area to single-occupancy vehicles, but the GOP plan would open the system up even more.

--Privatize foot ferries and allow the state to lease, rather than build, new car ferries.

--Require San Juan and Island counties to pay gas taxes. Rather than be rebated to the counties, their residents' taxes would go into the state transportation fund.

Meanwhile, House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, announced his plan to create a seven-member elected board to oversee transportation planning for the Puget Sound region. More than a half-dozen boards now exist, including the Sound Transit board and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

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