R-51: Panel, agency will strive to keep taxpayers informed

Friday, November 15, 2002

By HOWARD BUCK, Columbian staff writer

OLYMPIA -- There will be no attempt to draft an improved version of the failed Referendum 51 in 2003, the state's transportation chief and seven-member Washington State Transportation Commission said Thursday.

That's a job for the Legislature.

But Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald told the governor-appointed panel that he'll redouble efforts to explain funding options for transportation projects and the consequences of those choices.

On Thursday, MacDonald kicked off his quest with a two-hour discourse, "Straight Talk About Transportation." It was part pithy advice, part humble pie.

His chief message: Leaders have learned a hard lesson; now it's time for taxpayers to bone up. At least nearly all agree action is needed, and now.

First up: Meet voters' demand for better accountability in highway and transit construction.

"You have to deal with the question: 'There's plenty of money, if they spent it right,' " he said after unveiling new bar graphs showing funding streams for highways, roads and transit. Confident that new management tools he has initiated would earn good marks, MacDonald said he would welcome "hard-nosed" independent performance audits, long sought by state Department of Transportation critics.

"We have to learn to live with that standard and that public reality," he said. "It's a tall mountain we're climbing. We just have to keep slogging away."

New lines of communication will have to be opened. The secretary pledged to appeal to every community to engage in dialogue while building a 10-year investment plan (see www.wsdot.wa.gov.secretary).

"If we want to listen to the public, we've got to talk to the public," he said. "We've got to get people to react to this."

Without the $7.7 billion R-51 would have raised through increased gas taxes, Washington is plunging to the nation's bottom in per-capita spending on highway investment, MacDonald said.

Pulling the state up to "average" will require legislators to pick from a menu of funding options: peak-hour tolls, inflation-indexed gas taxes, gross weight fee or sales tax surcharges. But first, lawmakers and the public have to understand how the pieces fit together, he said.

MacDonald and commissioners hope to flesh out those funding options for legislators by late January.

Panel members voiced alternate ideas of where R-51 went wrong, and what should follow.

Citing newly built interchanges on state Highways 14 and 500, Vancouver's Ed Barnes said the public "doesn't really believe" elected officials who tout speedy, on-budget work. "Maybe it's got to come from somebody else, those (area) business owners and such."

But Barnes also took a slap at legislators who handed R-51 to voters, then went silent.

"We have to convince those people to convince their constituents what we're doing is right," he said.

Chairman Aubrey Davis of Seattle argued that the word "mega-project" should be banished. Critics misled voters, claiming costly projects would barely get started before R-51 dollars ran out, he complained.

In truth, the measure would have fully funded distinct project phases or segments, he said: "The terminology's got to change."

Others said priorities, not words, remain the core issue. Nonessential items that turned off state voters bicycle paths, trails, freight rail and some public transit improvements probably should be jettisoned, they said.

"For me, the world changed on Nov. 5," said Chris Marr of Spokane.


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