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Friday, April 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:53 A.M.
Transportation plan for region advances but faces hurdles
By Eric Pryne
The $12.8 billion plan would be the most expensive public-works program in the region's history. But there's a good chance the plan voters see in November won't be exactly what the seven-member board approved and there could be no package on the ballot at all.
The board approved the draft plan 6-1, with Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, dissenting. The split vote showed that longstanding divisions between Seattle and the rest of the region over the size and makeup of the package still haven't healed.
No plan can win voter approval if the region's political leadership isn't united behind it, many believe.
"This has to be further negotiated," state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said after yesterday's meeting.
Of the $12.8 billion in the plan, more than $7 billion would be spent in King County. Ninety-five percent of that would fund six "mega-projects":
Widening Interstate 405.
Replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge.
Replacing part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Extending the Highway 509 freeway in SeaTac to Interstate 5.
Extending Sound Transit's Seattle light-rail line south to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and north toward the University District.
Widening Highway 167.
To pay for this, the board formally proposed the four taxes it tentatively endorsed last month: a 0.3 percentage-point sales-tax increase, a 0.3 percent motor-vehicle excise tax, a flat $75 annual vehicle-license fee and a 2.8-cents-per-gallon regional gas tax.
The district estimates those taxes would cost a median-income King County household about $291 a year.
To reach the ballot, the draft plan still must clear several hurdles. It proposes to tap Sound Transit's unused sales-tax authority to pay for light rail and other "high-capacity" transit projects. That requires the Sound Transit board's approval; a decision is expected late next month.
The package also must be approved by 60 percent of the three counties' 25 county-council members, meeting together as the regional district's "planning committee." Then each council must vote separately to put it on the ballot.
Finally, an influential group of business leaders called the "Funders" plans to poll voters soon to see if the package would likely pass. If it wouldn't, and if companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Vulcan decided against financing a campaign, the whole process could grind to a halt.
Metropolitan King County Council members Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, and Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, acknowledged a tax increase won't be easy to sell. But Patterson said the draft plan would help business, create 36,000 jobs and provide new roads and transit to keep pace with growth.
"There will be critics of this plan from all sides," McKenna added. "The worst thing we could do is nothing."
Pelz disagreed. He said the plan is too big and provides too little for light rail, and predicted the Sound Transit board, on which he also sits, would turn it down: "I wouldn't be surprised if it were not even scheduled for a vote."
Patterson, another Sound Transit board member, said the package, when combined with other Sound Transit funds and possible federal grants, would provide enough money to extend light rail north from downtown Seattle at least as far as Husky Stadium.
But spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels shares Pelz's concerns and would vote against the plan as a Sound Transit board member.
Aides speaking for King County Executive Ron Sims, yet another Sound Transit board member, agreed the plan is too big and doesn't provide enough for rail but said Sims is still reviewing it.
Proposed gas tax a target
Pelz offered an alternative plan, originally floated by the state Department of Transportation and backed by Nickels, that would have trimmed the three-county package by $1.2 billion, to $11.6 billion, by eliminating the regional gas tax.
In King County, Pelz's plan would have reduced spending for I-405 and Highway 167 by more than one-quarter. Funding for light rail would have increased from $875 million to $1.1 billion.
McKenna and Patterson said Pelz's plan would have benefited Seattle at the expense of the suburbs, pouring nearly 40 percent of the revenue generated in the county into projects in the city and its northern suburbs. "Seattle arrogantly believes that it is special," Patterson said later.
Despite its rejection of Pelz's plan, the board is under pressure to drop the proposed regional gas tax. The oil industry has vowed to campaign against any package that includes the tax. The Funders also want the gas tax out, fearing any well-financed, organized opposition could doom the plan.
The dilemma: Eliminating the gas tax means either raising the sales tax higher, which Pierce and Snohomish county board members oppose, or cutting projects, which suburban King County officials say they can't support.
Even so, "trimming seems to be the likely outcome," MacDonald said.
Several high-profile projects weren't included in the plan. Among them: a proposal to reconfigure Interstate 90 between Seattle and I-405 to add one 24-hour HOV lane in each direction.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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