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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattle voters should say "no" to this long and winding road tax

It was a breathtaking moment: All six Democrats vying to replace state Rep. Ed Murray in the epicenter of tax-loving Seattle said they oppose Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' over-ambitious $1.6 billion road and bridge improvement package.

Anecdotally, you hear the same thing. Almost every person contacted in my unscientific study said the mayor and council finally have gone too far. Yes, even traditional Seattleites are reaching breaking point, ready to vote against the proposed property-tax increase in November. The package is too big, the requests for tax dollars too relentless.

But wait. Just in time to kill a burst of common sense, Tim Eyman, the anti-tax crusader who drives most Seattleites batty, has to ruin what looks like a perfectly good "no" vote. Eyman signed on as media contact for a newly formed group called "Vote No on the Never-Ending Tax."

Eyman may be a Pied Piper who tells people in other parts of the state how to vote, but he is a sour note in the city limits. The legitimate fear is Eyman's presence becomes code to voters to change their tune and vote for the bloated proposal — just to be on the other side of him.

So this plea to Seattle voters: Forget about Eyman and his views. He just needs the commission. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Let's be counter-intuitive intuitive.

The clear reason to oppose this mega-proposal is because the mayor and council couldn't restrain themselves. They could not make tough choices, though year after year voters are getting hammered with too many demands for public investment.

Over time, we are pricing low- and middle-income families and seniors out of the city. It's not just one road package this year. That by itself might be fine. But the city cynically offers one time-released proposal after proposal, hoping busy voters will forget what they spent this year and be raring and ready to pay for another expensive proposal next year.

Sheeesh.

The work has got to be done, says the mayor. Of course it does.

But Nickels et al. should pick one must-do proposal, not all the possible citywide maintenance and city-building one can envision. It's the endless nature of it that makes it so daunting. This year's gigantic road package will be followed by next year's request for the most gilded option for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct — a $3.6 billon tunnel.

The road and bridge package combines with a deluxe tunnel, costing $800 million in next year's regional transportation package, which combines with the need to expand Highway 520 and mitigate its impacts, which combines with a likely expansion of Sound Transit, which combines with the need to improve Seattle Center sans the SuperSonics, which combines with the latest plea to spend millions to refurbish the old monorail.

Voters should get a grip and force the mayor and council to do the same. A no vote is powerful. If Seattle turns down the $1.6 billion, I promise the idea of fixing roads and bridges throughout the city will not vanish. It will come back as a smarter, more-modest request.

These proposals, if really important, never die.

The city's and region's to-do lists are too big to keep pounding the voters every election. We all need some time to absorb everything that supposedly has to be done right now!

Big picture: It is good that Nickels is not a sit-on-his-thumbs mayor. But he moved too quickly from Pothole Guy to a guy who drank too much of the big-spending elixir.

The mayor asks for the moon. The council pushes back almost never. The middle- and lower-income residents of the city cannot keep up.

Voting "no" would be a powerful statement. We will have plenty of opportunity to fix our roads and bridges but the city has to show some compassion for the people who pay the tax bills. The average Seattleite cannot afford to do basic maintenance that piled up as a necessity over the years and build the city of the future all at once.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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