new wrinkle to complex transportation debate
By DAVID AMMONS The Associated Press
7/27/02 4:56 PM
OLYMPIA (AP) -- The debate over the best fix for Washington's traffic mess --
and how to pay the eye-popping multibillion-dollar pricetag -- has suddenly
gotten more complicated and now seems destined to stretch into 2003 and
The blame -- or praise -- goes in large measure to Tim Eyman and his merry
band of tax rebels.
Here's how the policy traffic jam looks:
Voters already face a $7.7 billion transportation referendum this fall -- the
biggest public works proposal ever placed on the statewide ballot. It is
embraced by the governor and virtually the entire political and business
establishment. But it's assailed on the left by environmentalists and on
the right by tax critics and polls show very long odds for passage.
And now Eyman and his Permanent Offense organization have leaped into the
fray, making the mega-package all the more unlikely to pass. They've
launched a no-new-tax alternative.
Eyman has touched off an unusual multi-year debate: This year's Referendum 51
versus his rival plan that won't get an actual vote until next year, probably
not until November, 2003. There is no direct parallel in the state's
Citizen Tim, returning big time from the political wilderness, also is
sponsoring Initiative 776 this fall to make car tabs cheaper in some counties
and to unravel some of the financing for Sound Transit's mass transit program
in central Puget Sound.
And these three ballot measures could be joined by yet a fourth plan -- a
proposal by environmentalists who want less emphasis on asphalt and more on
rail, buses, car- and vanpooling and other choices. This could come as
an initiative, a bill in the Legislature or as part of a regional
transportation plan that could go to voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce
counties next year, possibly in November.
Keeping up, kids?
The dueling ballot measures, combined with Seattle's monorail proposal,
possible actions by the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions, and the Puget
Sound regional tax vote offer the most sweeping public debate over
transportation and taxes that the state has ever seen.
Polls consistently show that voters consider the transportation mess the most
significant concern facing the Evercongested State -- but where will all these
countercurrents leave us?
Will anything pass this year?
Compounding the complexity is the new political reality that the voters, not
the Legislature, apparently will have the final decision on the size and
features of the package -- and how to pay for it.
"We're very much at a crossroads," says Peter Hurley, executive
director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
"This is where visions collide," says Eyman. "We have
been building to this point of deciding what we're going to do about
transportation. We have some totally different visions ... and it
will be decided outside the prism of Olympia."
------ THE PLAYERS AND THE PLANS Here's a primer on the major players and
--GAS TAX & THE ESTABLISHMENT.
R-51 is the Legislature's answer -- or at least the down-payment. It
asks voters to approve a 9-cent increase in the 23-cent-a-gallon gas tax that
hasn't been boosted in more than a decade. It also boosts trucking fees
by 30 percent and imposes a surtax of 1 percent on the purchase price of
That would provide $7.7 billion over a decade, including bond sales, to pay
for highways, ferries, rail and transit projects statewide. Everything
from potholes to "mega-projects" would get attention.
Backers have lined up most of the state's movers and shakers. The
Democratic Party, business and labor, community leaders and many lawmakers are
The GOP was persuaded to stay neutral. A major holdout is the
environmental community, which sees the plan as too wedded to a "car
Backers say it's a sensible mix of asphalt and mass transit and reflects a
belief that a major infusion of dollars is essential.
--EYMAN'S COMEBACK VEHICLE.
Eyman, ramping up his political comeback after a hoo-ha over taking campaign
money as salary, has offered a tax-free alternative. He fully expects
the plan to catch fire and cement the reputation of his initiative factory,
Permanent Offense, as the taxpayer's advocate.
His plan is simple -- too simple, say his numerous critics. Instead of
boosting taxes, he would divert a big stream of revenue that currently flows
into the general treasury
-- the state sales tax on cars -- and use it exclusively for roads. The
plan also would allow all cars to use carpool lanes except during rush hour,
and would direct the state auditor to scrutinize all state and local
transportation programs and funds.
The theme, he says, is that "Washington taxpayers insist on exhausting
all other options before tax increases are even considered."
The big question, of course, is how lawmakers would plug the estimated $760
million budget hole that would result. The sales tax on cars now amounts
to about 5 percent of the general budget, which pays for schools and colleges,
health care, prisons, parks, welfare and other services. Eyman doesn't
squarely address the question.
It's too late for Eyman to set up a head-to-head showdown with R-51 on the
November ballot, but he's offering it as something for voters to consider as
they decide R-51.
"We're plopping this little A-bomb in the middle of the debate," he
says with a delighted laugh. "We're making all the right people
angry. What's wrong with a no-new-taxes alternative? Let's give
the voters a choice."
He insists he isn't explicitly asking for a "no" vote on 51, but
that's clearly the point.
His initiative would go to the 2003 Legislature, which would presumably send
it, and possibly an alternative, to the 2003 fall ballot.
Political leaders were already deeply worried about R-51 and now they
privately wonder if anything can save it. At the very least, they're
diverted and on the defensive, having to explain why they think Eyman's plan
wouldn't work and how it would affect schools and other services.
"It does make things complicated," says Senate Transportation
Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. "This is a very
discouraging turn of events."
--ALL EYMAN ALL THE TIME. Also complicating the transportation debate is
Eyman's I-776, which would roll back the basic car-tab tax to $30 a pop,
cutting funds for Sound Transit and perhaps forcing a new public vote on the
whole beleaguered project. The plan also would freeze trucking fees,
even if R-51 passes. The no-new-tax plan would eliminate the car sales
surtax. The bottom line is that Eyman would provide new dollars for
highways and ferries, not mass transit. In a way, that's a rerun of
I-745, his failed plan to force 90 percent of all transportation taxes to go
--GREEN, GREEN. Environmentalists plan to offer their own alternative
early this fall, also in time to let voters see a different approach.
"What is Plan B?" Hurley asks. "The bottom line is that
both Eyman's two initiatives and R-51 try to build our way out of
congestion. They would be significant steps backward.
"It is incumbent to put a positive alternative out on the table. A
moderate and balanced package has the opportunity to change the debate.
We think voters want more choices, more balance in the system, a package that
is probably less expensive and includes money for HOV lanes, transit money,
Amtrak, and efficiency programs like commute-trip reduction.
"We will use the likely failure of 51 as a springboard to put this
innovations package in front of the Legislature."
Dueling initiatives in 2003 is a distinct possibility, although
environmentalists might decide to concentrate on passing a good regional
transportation package, he says.
------ POST-51 Haugen says if R-51 is defeated, Gov. Gary Locke should
call an immediate special session to pass a new plan. Her preference is
for a package adopted in Olympia.
Some lawmakers already are talking about a 3-to-5 cent gas tax hike as a
stopgap plan, primarily to maintain the current highway system and to match
local and federal dollars.
Hurley says the jury is out on whether lawmakers would act if 51 is defeated,
as he expects. That puts more attention on the regional
roads-and-transit package now being cobbled together for a public vote.
And so another ballot-box collision could happen next year. The regional
plan could be on the same November ballot as Eyman's latest, a green
initiative and maybe even something from the Legislature.
And the whole mess could be thrown back into lawmakers' laps in 2004.
And the voters after that.
Will anything ever be final?
It looks like a long, contentious, complicated debate, with no clear paths yet
------ David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the
statehouse since 1971. He may be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia,
WA, 98507, or at dammons(at)ap.org on the Internet.
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