By Reid H. Shockey
We are approaching a convergence of two important events impacting Snohomish County. Later this year, Boeing will decide where to build the 777X in Everett or South Carolina; and the Legislature will likely decide if a package of transportation improvements — and yes, taxes — will be put in place. The county has taken a bold step in approving major improvements to Paine Field for Boeing or other aerospace manufacturers; the city of Everett has promised to expedite permitting. Now the Legislature needs to act on transportation.
Consider that from 1980-2000, our population increased by 44 percent while vehicle miles increased by 88 percent. This is an unsustainable trend, especially if we fail to maintain, preserve and improve our transportation system. Snohomish County business, labor, community officials and citizens have cooperated in focusing on our most critical transportation needs. These include maintaining our roads; moving people and freight; and adding needed lanes to our streets and highways. Priorities also include support for local funding of transit; we need to move more people with not as many cars. All of these improvements will serve economic growth and support existing jobs in our county.
Simply put, Snohomish County is important. We are an economic driver for the state. When a business starts here, it creates jobs elsewhere. When a new plane leaves Paine Field, industrial dollars flow into our economy. Our Port of Everett is one of the most profitable in the state and on the West Coast. Farm products flow across our state for shipment from our ports, rail and highways. Yes, our county is important. We must hold our position with a robust transportation funding package.
A specific list of critical transportation projects has been identified with broad support and reach throughout Snohomish County. The list includes roads and interchanges to serve Arlington industry; safety improvements in Sky Valley; aerospace improvements around Paine Field; the Mukilteo ferry terminal; traffic relief at Frontier Village and others. The list has a preservation component to extend the life of the roads and bridges we already have. These are not frills; they are a well-reasoned and conservative list that gives our county the biggest bang for the limited buck. Actually, about a billion bucks.
“Did he say ‘conservative’ and ‘a billion’?” Well, yes, I did. A 2006 study commission identified $134 billion in critical Puget Sound transportation needs over the next 25 years, with about $72 billion available from all possible funding sources. The pending transportation package will propose $10 billion to $12 billion in improvements statewide over the next ten years, so the Snohomish County portion looks to be about 10 percent of the total. Consider that we have 10 percent of the state’s population, rank second in manufacturing jobs and third in total employment. The estimate of $1 billion for critical needs is conservative indeed.
OK, now comes the “T” word. If the governor calls a special session in November and the Legislature acts, our gas tax may increase by as much as 10.5 cents. Of the $3.65 or so you currently pay for a gallon of gas, about 38 cents is paid in gas taxes. True, an increase of a dime or so will place us third in the nation in gas taxes, but every other member of that top 10 also has a state income tax. Of course, we don’t. Further, our constitution requires that all of the 38 or 49 cents be used for transportation purposes, with half going to state roads and half going to local governments for their transportation needs.
With the right transportation package, transit agencies will have the option to ask voters to pay for their operations, too. Again, they must ask the voters.
So about that dime. In July of this year, gas prices spiked to almost $4 per gallon. Right now, we’re back to about $3.65, but the roller coaster will continue. Summer highs, winter lows, refinery shutdowns here, a war over there. Prices will take mind-boggling shifts where a dime’s bit of difference doesn’t make much of a difference. The oil companies will take several other dimes, to the delight of their investors. But if at least one dime stays in Washington to maintain the roads that are essential to job production, well, a small price to pay indeed.
We need to acknowledge those who cringe at the thought of more taxes and who demand more efficiency for their tax dollar. Fair point. Any transportation package must pass the sniff test. We owe an explanation to citizens as to why a particular project is needed, how it will be brought in on time and on budget. Some legislators demand “accountability,” a somewhat vague term that needs some definition by those who demand it. But, if valid rules of accountability are laid out by our representatives, then the taxpayers have a right to hold WSDOT and others to those rules. The Senate’s “Listening Tour” that visited Everett in September talked about proposed reforms. As I testified, there should be discussion of possible reforms, along with approval of new revenues. That is fair and the public will be well served by doing it.
We live in a time of division and mistrust. We lose sight of our needs because of our anger with our government, our political opposites, even our neighbors. But we need common ground on transportation if we Washingtonians are going to compete with South Carolina, California, Texas, Europe or China.
This requires honest discussion of what it will take to find solutions to our critical transportation needs.
We simply cannot let critical solutions fall victim to politics and ideology at the expense of our economic future. We must work to find common ground on truly critical needs, fund them, and insist on the efficient delivery of the product. Snohomish County citizens must commit to and expect no less. We look to the Legislature to take these actions and soon.
Reid Shockey is owner of Shockey Planning Group and is president of the Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation (SCCIT). He is past chair of the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel and served on the Governor’s 2006 Regional Transportation Commission. He is a former community development director for the city of Everett.