Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Do-it-yourself road work
A statewide citizens' initiative to roll back a 9. 5-cent gas-tax increase likely will pass in November, because of anger at the blunderfest...
A statewide citizens' initiative to roll back a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase likely will pass in November, because of anger at the blunderfest known as the Seattle monorail, the high price of gas, distrust of government and the many things in life the average voter can't control.
The consequences of passing Initiative 912 may be more sweeping than merely reducing spending on roads and bridges. It may be the first step toward Californizing Washington's transportation system.
One very real possibility is Washington will follow California and create a two-tier system of Have and Have-not counties. In California, state government is a lesser player in new transportation projects and county residents have to tax themselves to build the lion's share of roads and transportation infrastructure.
In recent years, voters in California's more urban counties — so-called Self-Help Counties — have voted to raise the sales tax half a penny to pay for maintenance, new roads and transit. More rural, tax-averse counties don't approve an increase and ride on lesser roadways as a result. These are referred to as Wanna-Be Counties.
If this seems far-fetched for Washington, where major road, bridge and ferry projects have typically been statewide affairs, it is not. If I-912 passes, lawmakers already are talking about allowing different regions of the state to split off and fend for themselves.
Stating a reality, not a threat, state Rep. Ed Murray, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says it may be time to dissolve the state Department of Transportation and replace it with regional transportation departments.
"Why should Central Puget Sound pay for roads in the rest of the state if we can't pay for what we need?" he asks. Murray, a Seattle Democrat, is adamant about replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is in danger of falling down in an earthquake. The 9.5-cent gas-tax increase voted in this year provides $2 billion to replace the viaduct, money that vanishes with passage of I-912.
In Washington, with our sometimes steel-bolted Cascade Curtain, voters submit to fears or rumors about who benefits from gas-tax distribution.
People outside Seattle don't want to pay for — insert the project — the monorail, Sound Transit, the viaduct. Monorail and Sound Transit receive no gas-tax funding. State law requires gas-tax funds be used for roads and auto ferries. That doesn't stop people from fearing that somehow they are paying for mega-projects in Seattle.
In some ways, the reverse is true. Between 1984 and 2003, Puget Sounders exported transportation dollars to other parts of the state. That makes sense. Puget Sound is where the population and money are.
The 5-cent gas-tax increase approved two years ago and the new 9.5-cent gas-tax increase approved this past legislative session would even things out, with the heavy workload in fast-growing Puget Sound counties keeping more money here. That makes sense, too.
Voters increasingly feel government has enough money to build projects and a lot of them want tax dollars spent in their own region. That sentiment was also at work in California.
The upside of California's Balkanized system is, billions of dollars are approved for projects and voters living nearby see results. The public likes local control and local tailoring of projects.
Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, for example, has a significant retired population, so their half-penny proposal includes considerable investment in para-transit and senior fare discounts.
The downside is, the system creates winners and losers and makes transportation a piecemeal endeavor.
Several less-urbanized California counties feel abandoned as their traffic has worsened and safety and road quality declined under a system of every county for itself.
What bothers me most about I-912 is its cynicism. It is heavily marketed by two talk-radio hosts who are promoting themselves and their radio shows. They believe gas prices are too high and question whether congestion really will be reduced.
But talk-show hosts don't seem too concerned about what happens next. Bloviators need not worry about really fixing problems.
There may be benefits to regionalizing transportation. But if we end up with the California model, the next lament you will hear is that our state has created Self-Help and Wanna-Be counties — mighty close to the Haves and Have-nots.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.