Locke alters roads plan

By Susanna Ray and Warren Cornwall
Everett Herald Writers


OLYMPIA, WA - 3/22/02 -- Gov. Gary Locke signed a new law Thursday allowing Snohomish, King and Pierce counties to band together to raise money for Puget Sound road projects.

There's one controversial catch: He vetoed the part that tied the fate of the regional proposal to that of the statewide transportation plan.

Gas tax history

The state gas tax is currently 23 cents a gallon. It would go to 32 cents if voters statewide approve a 9-cent increase, a 40 percent jump. That would be on top of the current federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon.

In 1921, the state gas tax was a penny, steadily increasing to 9 cents in 1967, 18 cents in 1984 and the current 23 cents in 1991.



That's a big deal, said a disappointed Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

"We do have a total system in the state of Washington, we're not just one area," Haugen said. "(Lawmakers) felt very strongly that you need to make sure you can fix the total transportation system."

The Legislature passed the two-part plan last week. The first part will ask voters in November to approve a 9-cent increase in the gas tax (bringing it to 32 cents a gallon) and other fees to raise $7.8 billion for projects throughout the state.

But that's not enough money to fix the Puget Sound area's severe congestion, so lawmakers also agreed to give the region's three counties the authority to ask residents to hike other taxes, such as the sales tax. That money -- as much as $8.7 billion -- would be spent only on local projects.

Legislators made the regional plan null and void if the statewide plan failed at the ballot. But Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel and others asked Locke to get rid of that section out of fear that if the statewide plan tanks this fall, it will take the whole ship down with it.

Locke explained his veto by saying the regional solution shouldn't be held hostage to what statewide voters decide about the gas tax.

Some, however, worry that by not making the regional plan contingent on passage of the statewide plan, it could provide an easy out for Eastern Washington voters to say no to the gas tax increase, figuring Puget Sound voters can foot the whole bill.

Others fret that if Puget Sound residents decide they can fix their traffic problems alone, they won't vote for the full statewide package.

"There are more theories than we know what to do with," Drewel said.

That's not the only potential problem surrounding the plan.

It turns out that the Snohomish, King and Pierce county councils aren't totally on board with the idea of working together as a region.

Snohomish County Council Chairman Gary Nelson said he supported freeing the Puget Sound area to devise its own funding proposal, but he was leery of putting a regional tax to area voters without an assurance that state money would be available to match local tax increases. That would mean waiting until after the November election before deciding whether to put a regional proposal to voters.

While Drewel pushed to separate the two packages, Nelson criticized Locke's veto, warning there wouldn't be enough money to complete meaningful projects unless both plans pass.

The fate of a regional package hinges on the county councils, which the new law puts in charge of devising the regional plan. They will need to iron out a host of difficult questions, such as which projects to fund, how to raise the money, how much money to collect and when to put a tax package on the ballot.

In an indication of the potential for disagreement, King County Council member Dwight Pelz, chairman of that council's transportation committee, said that contrary to Nelson, he supported Locke's veto. Puget Sound voters might fear gas tax dollars being exported to other parts of the state, but they could support a regional package that kept money for Puget Sound projects, he said.

There is pressure to put the regional and state packages on the November ballot together, because polls indicate that success of the state plan depends on support from Seattle voters who want to see more money spent on mass transit. While the state plan has little money for transit, a regional package could help fill those gaps, Pelz said.

"I think (Locke) is giving counties the opportunity to move forward and get a plan on the same ballot as the statewide plan," said Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

But several others said the regional plan likely won't be on the ballot this fall. For one thing, it's "far too complicated," Haugen said, "and they don't have the planning money" without first passing the statewide plan and getting more gas tax funds.

Nelson said he expected to meet with King County Council members in the coming weeks. But that was before Locke's veto. Now, he said, that might be in question.

If the process does move forward, Nelson said the councils would need to agree on a project list and fair tax plan. The Snohomish County list includes widening Highway 9, Highway 522, Highway 524 and possibly the Hewitt Avenue Trestle, and fixing the I-5 bottleneck through Everett, he said.

Farther south in Pierce County, there were mixed signals about interest in a regional coalition. County council member Pat O'Malley, a Republican on a council with a one-vote Democratic majority, said the need for a regional solution to transportation problems was clear.

But fellow Republican Karen Biskey questioned whether people in her district, which includes part of the Olympic Peninsula, would support a tax increase when they are also facing tolls to finance a planned second Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Additionally, the new law would allow Snohomish and King counties to band together without Pierce County.

Drewel, meanwhile, said the county councils should begin working on a regional package.

"The people in Snohomish County want transportation addressed," Drewel said. "I'm holding out some hope the county councils can get together and come up with a list of projects."


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