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Originally published October 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2007 at 7:13 AM

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Election 2007

Will projects cut commutes? Sorting out congestion claims

If you believe the multibillion dollar roads and transit package on the November ballot would shave time off your highway commute, think...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information online

Supporters: www.yesonroadsandtransit.org

Opponents: www.notoprop1.org

Proposition 1

What it would do

Highways and roads: The plan would spend about $7 billion, in 2006 dollars, on more than two dozen highway and local road projects, including widening Interstate 405 and improving Mercer Street in Seattle. Almost $1 billion would go toward replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge.

Sound Transit: Another $10.8 billion would extend Sound Transit light rail east to Redmond's Overlake area, south to Tacoma and north to 164th Street Southwest in Snohomish County, and enhance commuter-rail and regional bus service.

The cost in new taxes

Sales taxes: The tax would increase one penny per $10 purchase to pay for highway projects and a nickel per $10 purchase to pay for light rail — a total of about $150 a year per household, on average.

Car tabs: A new tax would add $80 per $10,000 of vehicle value.

Who pays: Both taxes would be paid by most households in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

OLYMPIA — If you believe the multibillion dollar roads and transit package on the November ballot would shave time off your highway commute, think again.

Commutes will be longer than they are today — even after all the work is completed by 2027, according to research by the folks who put together Proposition 1.

Things will likely get worse regardless, because a million more people are expected to be living here in 20 years. The added traffic would fill up all the new highway lanes the package would build, and then some.

Proposition 1 would increase car-tab and sales taxes to improve highways and extend light rail in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Backers say the plan would cost $18 billion in 2006 dollars.

Adding inflation, financing, operations, overhead and cash reserves, the entire package could cost around $38 billion by 2027 and a total of $47 billion by 2057.

While there's a consensus congestion will increase, fact sheets and some advertisements put out by ballot-measure supporters indicate the work would provide relief from traffic jams. In fact, the first four words of the ballot title voters will soon get in the mail read "to reduce transportation congestion."

Opponents contend the statements are deceptive. "What they say over and over again is 'reduce congestion,' " said Mark Baerwaldt, a spokesman for NoToProp1.org. "It's totally inaccurate and it's misleading."

Proposition 1 advocates stand by their statements and the ballot title.

The phrase "reduce congestion" really means "there will be reductions in congestion compared to not doing anything," said Anne Fennessy, a spokeswoman for the Regional Transportation Investment District. In other words, the improvements are expected to slow the rate at which congestion gets worse.

State traffic analysts estimate drivers in the central Puget Sound region waste about 107,000 hours each afternoon stuck in traffic. Even if Proposition 1 is approved by voters, that figure is expected to increase about 78 percent to 191,000 hours in 20 years because of population growth.

However, it's estimated that if the proposed improvements are not made, congestion will more than double to 255,000 hours of delay each afternoon.

Here's a specific example. Research by the investment district shows it takes about 20 minutes on average to drive from Renton to Auburn during the evening commute on Highway 167.

That same trip is expected to increase to 24 minutes by the time all the Proposition improvements are completed two decades from now.

However, if Proposition 1 fails and none of the work is done, the trip in 2028 would take 32 minutes, the investment district estimates. That's a 60 percent increase in time.

And that's why advocates say it's accurate to claim Proposition 1 will reduce congestion — because trips would be shorter, compared with doing nothing.

Likewise, Sound Transit officials say they don't claim spending billions of dollars on light rail would significantly reduce congestion. It will get many drivers off the highway, they argue, and provide a reliable way to avoid traffic.

Proposition 1 backers say they've been upfront with voters.

Investment-district officials say there's plenty of material available to voters that explains the roads and transit package is a 20-year plan and that more people will move to the region during that time. They also say their documents explain that the package won't reduce congestion seen on the highways today.

Fennessy notes, for instance, that on page 26 of a publication called "Blueprint for Progress," created by the investment district, it states "Performance improvement measured against 2028 baseline congestion."

Translation: When they talk about reducing congestion, they mean the projected congestion in 2028, not today.

Fennessy also points to a sentence in a recently published voters guide, put together by Sound Transit and the investment district, that says Proposition 1 would "reduce travel time for buses, trucks and cars when compared to not making these investments."

"In my mind it's common sense," Fennessy said. "It seems to me that we say ... this is based on not doing anything, versus doing these things."

Aaron Toso, a spokesman for Yesonroadsandtransit.org, agreed.

"Voters understand that this isn't some panacea that will give everyone a five-minute commute," he said. "We're not talking about today. We're talking about the future."

Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University, doubts voters are picking up on the nuances.

Studies of how voters use government-provided voters guides "show most folks don't read the details. They don't read the text of the measures, just the title and summary, and who signed the arguments pro and con," he said.

"If the ads say 'reduce congestion' that's what people will hear," Donovan said, but he added "that doesn't mean they'll believe it."

Past surveys show more than 80 percent of Washington voters think advertisements for ballot measures are deliberately misleading, he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-934-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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