$50 billion roads plan unveiled

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

SEATTLE – A commission charged with solving Washington’s transportation woes unveiled a 20-year plan Wednesday that calls for closer scrutiny of transportation spending, coupled with more than $50 billion in tax and fee increases.

But the plan’s fate hinges on how it fares in the Legislature, and possibly at the ballot box.

"The real work is just beginning," said Connie Niva, an Everett resident and chairwoman of the state Transportation Commission who sat on the Blue Ribbon Commission, as it’s known.

Several state political leaders welcomed the report, saying its proposals would be a top priority in the coming legislative session.

"This is not a report or product that will lie on some shelf gathering dust," Gov. Gary Locke said at a news conference.

There is already disagreement about how to pursue the tax increases. Locke said he would want to get voter approval before moving ahead with such hikes.

"I just think on something this significant, it ought to be put to the voters," he said.

Republican and Democratic leaders on the Legislature’s transportation committees, however, said it is time for policymakers to shoulder the responsibility for approving any needed tax increases.

"I think it’s really time for statesmanship," said Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The Legislature created the Transportation Commission in 1998 to come up with a long-term plan for the state.

The plan seeks to allay public fears that money is being wasted, while at the same time making the case that the system needs a major infusion of dollars.

There is a "misinformed belief" that governments already have enough money to fix an overburdened transportation system, said Skip Rowley, a King County developer and commission member.

The tax increases would raise more money from people using the transportation system, he said.

Proposed tax and fee increases include:

  • A sales tax on gas, plus a roughly 6-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax.

  • A 2 percent charge on the purchase of transportation goods such as cars.

  • A $20 annual fee on cars and noncommercial trucks.

  • A weight tax for cars.

  • An additional weight charge for commercial trucks.

  • Increased ferry fares.

    Also, local governments would have the option to ask voters to approve tax increases such as:

  • A regional sales tax.

  • An odometer tax tied to how many miles a car is driven.

  • A $50 license fee.

    For a typical resident, the tax increases would cost roughly $231 a year, according to the commission.

    The $50 billion price tag may sound like a lot, Niva said. But broken down to roughly $4.40 a week per person, it should seem well worth it to ease congestion, she said.

    "For the public to have a better transportation system, is it worth a couple lattes a week?" she asked.

    For that price, the commission said the state would be able to address congestion points on highways, add needed lanes, repair the state’s roads, revive a ferry system on the verge of running in the red, keep the Puget Sound region from violating air quality standards and pump more money into transit systems.

    Overall, the commission estimated the state faces a $150 billion transportation bill in the next two decades. Current revenues will cover $55 billion, with another $38 billion to $52 billion from tax increases. The remainder is expected to come from savings of $40 billion to $50 billion from more careful government spending, telecommuting and getting people to use their cars less.

    The commission’s plan ties the tax increases to demands for greater efficiency by agencies. It also recommends opening some government work to competitive bidding by private companies, and streamlining construction methods and environmental permits.

    It would also abolish the transportation commission and place the Transportation Department under the governor’s control. In the commission’s place, it calls for an "accountability board" to monitor transportation spending and performance, and to send an annual report card to the governor and Legislature.

    The plan will face a closely divided Legislature, with a 49-49 tie between Democrats and Republicans in the House.

    It also comes on the heels of several initiatives that signaled voter displeasure with taxes. Initiative 695, which passed in 1999, canceled the state car tax, an important source of transportation funding. Earlier this month, voters followed with Initiative 722, which capped property taxes.

    Rep. Maryann Mitchell, R-Federal Way, co-chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said the legislative split could actually bode well for the package, because lawmakers will have to strive for bipartisanship.

    Mitchell said that before raising taxes, officials would first need to squeeze every existing dollar out of the system.

    "We have to be comfortable that we have gone as far as we can go on that before we go to new revenues," she said.

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