July 1, 2002
Dialog just beginning on R-51
by Jeanette Knutson
Our state has colossal transportation problems.
There is daily gridlock on state and county roads, recurrent congestion. There are problems with episodic freeway backups due to the slow clearing of blocking accidents. There are some two thousand "high accident" locations where road improvements are needed to save lives. There are 950 bridges awaiting retrofits to make them earthquake safe and hundreds of other bridges begging for structural, design and safety fixes.
Then there are Central Puget Sound's mega-projects. The Alaskan Way Viaduct needs a makeover. Some say I-405 should be expanded; the 520 Bridge, replaced.
Let's face it. There are increasing demands on our transportation system, fueled, in part, by population growth, economic growth, cheap energy, cheap cars. So said Douglas MacDonald, Secretary of Transportation, Washington state Department of Transportation, when he addressed the Puget Sound Regional Council recently. He also said the predicament has been further exacerbated by the fact that investment levels in our state's transportation infrastructure have not kept pace with demand. There has been a shift away from an interstate highway system, competing governmental and social welfare priorities, a polarizing debate about transportation.
To make matters worse, it doesn't appear as if there will be an increase in existing tax sources in the future, MacDonald pointed out.
The answer to the state's traffic woes, say some politicians, is a tax package that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot in the form of Referendum 51. Dropped in voters' laps courtesy of the state Legislature, the measure will ask voters to increase the state's 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax by 9 cents per gallon, a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in 2003 and an additional 4-cent-per-gallon increase in 2004. It would also add a 1 percent sales surcharge on new and used car purchases and increase weight fees for heavy trucks by 30 percent, a 15 percent increase (on trucks over 10,000 pounds) in 2003 and an additional 15 percent increase in 2004.
Supporting documents to the Senate and House bill (ESHB 2969) that created R-51 indicate the annual estimated cost from a 9-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase for an SUV driver who gets 12 miles per gallon and travels 10,000 to 14,000 miles per year would range from $75 to $105. Annual estimated costs for the driver of a more fuel-efficient car that gets 24 miles per gallon and travels 10,000 to 14,000 miles per year would range from $38 to $53.
The roughly $7.7 billion R-51 would net over 10 years would be spent like this: $5.5 billion on mobility, safety and freight improvements, $330 million on local programs, $688 million on ferries, $294 million on rail, and $819 million on public transportation.
"Taxpayers for R-51" say, "The revenues will be used properly and produce results. ... New revenues must be deposited in transportation-only accounts. The state constitution also requires every penny of gas tax revenues be used on transportation improvements. And R-51 requires mandatory quarterly audits for a full accounting of the revenues, progress on improvements and expected completion dates. All of that information must be reported to taxpayers."
And though labor and big business are lining up behind the measure, it seems the only two people (aside from the state's Secretary of Transportation) out trying to rouse interest in the referendum are Gov. Gary Locke and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. They're doing the luncheon circuit, spelling out to business and civic leaders how better roads will improve Washington's economic health, how better roads will lead to fewer accidents, injuries and deaths, how better roads will improve our quality of life.
The "Vote No on Referendum 51" folks say, "R-51 is bad for the environment. It promotes sprawl, destroys wetlands, harms salmon." They say, "Building more roads won't reduce congestion. ... If the answer to traffic problems were just another lane, then Los Angeles would not have any traffic jams."
Other naysayers claim mass transit is being ignored or that R-51 will promote more use of cars, less use of public transit. Environmentalists warn more roads mean more air quality problems.
The Woodinville City Council has already begun discussing R-51 and will continue to study it further, said Marie Stake, spokeswoman for the City of Woodinville. She said the Council would most likely hold a public hearing to hear citizens' comments on the measure. Stake advises citizens to check the council agendas published in the Woodinville Weekly for dates the referendum will be discussed. She encourages public input. The council will probably take a position on the referendum after the public hearings, she said.
"State and county roads run through and outside our town," said Stake. "Funding to fix these roads has dried up."
Since R-51 provides some money for local projects, Woodinville will be able to bid on its road projects through a competitive bid process.
"It would be in our best interest to vie for money provided by R-51," Stake said.
Kenmore City Manager Steve Anderson said, "Regionally we stand to gain if R-51 passes. The City of Kenmore has a lot of transportation needs identified in its 20-year Comprehensive Plan. We would love to have our applications (for some of these projects) considered and awarded, but there are no guarantees."
Anderson said his city has to compete with everyone else for a slice of the R-51 pie.
Though not calendared, the City of Kenmore will probably hold a public hearing to give equal time to citizens both "for" and "against" the measure. The council will most likely announce a policy position on R-51 sometime after the hearing.
"State transportation is a very important, very complicated issue," said Anderson. "If R-51 is successful, our region - and hopefully our city - stand to gain."
Seyed Safavin, manager of the transportation division of the City of Bothell's Public Works Department, said city staff hasn't had any formal discussions on the referendum yet. He expects they will in the coming weeks. Safavin also said the Washington Department of Transportation isn't providing adequate information to cities about the referendum.
"If we look at ourselves as part of the region, yes, all of us will benefit with the passage of R-51. But I am disappointed the main arterial SR 522 has not been recognized or included in R-51. That is a major concern we have," said Safavin.