Is transportation plan "doomed to failure"?
A $16 billion regional transportation measure headed for the November ballot has serious flaws and could fail without significant changes...
Seattle Times staff reporters
OLYMPIA — A $16 billion regional transportation measure headed for the November ballot has serious flaws and could fail without significant changes, several key state lawmakers say.
The ballot measure would extend the Sound Transit light-rail system and put money toward a series of big-ticket road projects, including a new Highway 520 floating bridge and additional lanes on Highway 167 and Interstate 405.
It would spend $9.8 billion on transit and $6.7 billion on roads over 20 years.
Legislators worry the package is too expensive for voters to accept yet doesn't fully fund a new floating bridge or complete as much work as they think is needed on some of the region's most-congested highways, such as Highway 167.
Instead, the money is spread too thin in order to cover as many projects as possible, they say.
"There's a growing concern," said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. "My big concern about the size of the ballot measure is it doesn't do what we need to have done."
Seattle Democrat Ed Murray, a vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has similar doubts, saying the regional ballot "is in serious trouble." Sen. Dan Swecker, ranking Republican on the same committee, said the tax package "is doomed to failure" without significant changes.
Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she's trying to stay out of the fight but agreed the ballot measure has problems, such as cost and a lack of funding for key projects.
The state Legislature gave King, Snohomish and Pierce counties permission about five years ago to form a regional investment district to address their collective traffic problems. The district is now putting the final touches on the tax package. Approval by the district's board and the three county councils would send the package to the ballot.
But Clibborn and other lawmakers said they want the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) board to make significant changes before the measure is sent to voters.
However, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, chairman of the Sound Transit board, argues the package is in good shape.
"I think that's exactly what the voters want. They want a 20-year plan that does road and transit," he said. "And they want to see us moving dirt."
Ladenburg said it was the Legislature that decided the district board — not state lawmakers — should develop the project list for the ballot. "Now they want to second-guess the process they set up," he said.
Not all lawmakers think the tax package needs major revisions. Democratic Reps. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, and Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, said it's in pretty good shape and has a chance to pass.
The counties came up with 36 projects, mainly highway lanes, but also some arterial streets, park-and-ride lots and a new Edmonds station for ferries, trains and buses.
Under the current proposal, a typical household would pay $125 more in sales taxes toward Sound Transit and another $25 toward roads each year. In addition, car owners would pay new car-tab taxes — $68 annually for an average $8,500 vehicle — that would cover road projects.
Existing Sound Transit taxes would continue.
The $16 billion figure for the package excludes financing costs and inflation, which boost the total to more than $31 billion over a 20-year construction period, and payments on bond debt beyond that.
It's a high-stakes election for the region.
"We need to be very careful in what we put forward because this is a one-time shot," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue. "If we miss on this one, it's not something we're going to be correcting next year in Olympia."
State lawmakers aren't sure what will happen if the ballot measure fails. It's possible counties would have to try to raise money for big projects on their own. Or maybe a new regional transportation organization would grow out of the ashes. Raising additional money from the state is highly unlikely, they said.
Clibborn and other lawmakers worried about the ballot measure said they haven't yet talked directly to members of the investment district board.
But Jim Waldo, an attorney with the board, said they got the message. "There are some things we're taking a look at and will be talking with them [legislators] about over the next two or three weeks," he said.
Clibborn said she'd like to see the Sound Transit light-rail portion of the ballot measure scaled back and the roads portion redone so that more money goes into projects such as Highway 167 and, in particular, Highway 520.
An estimated $4.4 billion to $5.3 billion is needed to build a six-lane bridge to replace the four-lane Highway 520 span, constructed in 1963. Engineers say the existing bridge could fail in an earthquake or severe windstorm.
State and regional officials have not yet produced a plan that fully funds the project. The Senate Transportation Committee has released a rough blueprint to raise $3.7 billion to $4.2 billion, including money from the regional tax package.
But that falls at least $200 million short of what's needed to finish the bridge and assumes $1.2 billion in tolls, without a strategy to collect that much from drivers.
"It's perplexing to me they'd put together a ballot measure without full funding for 520," said Rep Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, whose 43rd District includes neighborhoods near the Highway 520 project's west end.
Some of the road projects were scaled back in December because of a spike in concrete and steel prices worldwide, and expected future inflation.
For example, instead of building a general-traffic lane in each direction on Highway 167 through the Green River Valley, the measure would fund fewer miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes and exit-only lanes.
Ladenburg disagrees the money is spread too thin. "Every one of these projects is valid and needs to be done. There isn't a dog in there," he said, adding that they are all needed to attract enough votes to pass the measure.
"You could strip the money out and put it into 520, and there would be a lot of people voting 'no,' " he said.
And Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, a member of the district board, said the package will fail if officials strip money from Sound Transit, because constituents will be outraged by more years of delay in getting suburban rail lines they consider overdue.
As it is, Nelson considers the vote "a coin toss right now."
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