Business leaders add pressure for traffic solution

Associated Press

Everett businessman Greg Tisdel headed to Olympia Wednesday to tell state lawmakers they need to do something about the state’s traffic congestion.

But he was late and missed the meeting. He got stuck in traffic.

"Somewhere along the road going down there," Tisdel recalled, "I looked up to the sky and said to the guy up there, ‘You must’ve planned this whole deal.’"

Tisdel, owner of Tiz’s Door Sales, was scheduled to speak at the Capitol as a member of the Association of Washington Business. The business community is pleading with lawmakers to take quick, decisive action on the traffic problem before the current special session is over.

Many lawmakers have begun to despair of breaking the impasse that has kept the Legislature from approving a 10-year plan for highways and transit, and the taxes to pay for it.

Tisdel’s delayed journey to the Capitol perfectly illustrated the problem. A 90-mile trip that should take 1 1/2hours dragged on for three hours. There was no rain, no accidents — just too many cars. Tisdel and his pickup truck hit slowdown after slowdown.

"It was pretty much tied up all the way down," he said. "It was just one of those bad traffic days."

The Senate plans to vote on a state operating budget Friday, complete with eleventh-hour negotiated deals. The House will follow suit within a few days, aides said, probably signaling adjournment sometime next week, with or without a transportation package.

Business leaders, at a news conference on the Capitol steps and in private meetings with key lawmakers, used an economic argument to urge the Legislature not to punt.

Traffic congestion, rated as second-worst in the country, threatens to chase businesses out of the state and hurt those that stay, business executives and lobbyists said.

"For us, it’s a key competitive issue, a serious business-climate issue," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, which bills itself as the state’s Chamber of Commerce. "It isn’t just a matter of inconvenience. It’s so important to our economy, to our quality of life, to jobs."

He said business has been working quietly for weeks to push a package of transportation efficiencies and new taxes, but wants to ramp up the effort for fear the whole issue will die.

"It’s really unusual for us, because we’re here advocating for higher taxes," he said in an interview. "We are willing to pay our share. We know that if the Legislature does not act, the consequences are far worse. We estimate that the cost of a gas-tax increase would be about one-eighth of the money we waste in congestion."

Traffic congestion costs motorists in the Puget Sound region an average of $930 a year and costs companies $2 billion, he said.

He declined to blame the House Republicans for the impasse, as Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and the legislative Democrats do. "We’re just here to say the Legislature and governor can come together and we’re trying to drive it," he said.

The governor and Democrats in both houses are going along with some, but not all, of the House Republicans’ demand for changes in how the state Department of Transportation does business. The final sticking point is the GOP plan for changes in the state’s prevailing-wage laws and for turning more state highway jobs over to the private sector.

Locke and House and Senate Democrats support a major package of new state and regional taxes to finance a 10-year plan costing at least $17 billion.

A key element of the state tax package would be a gas-tax increase. Proposals range from 7 cents to 12 cents, phased in over time. The current tax is 23 cents a gallon.

Corporate Washington supports a major revenue increase — at least $1 billion a year for 10 years — but hasn’t endorsed a particular plan. It wants lawmakers to approve a plan in Olympia, rather than submitting it to the voters.

Brunell said business supports the Republicans’ proposals, but doesn’t want the impasse to doom the tax package. Business leaders haven’t adopted a specific proposal for regional transportation funding, he said.

"Businesses will continue to do their part by paying higher taxes and offering employees options such as flexible working hours or working from home," said Bob Watt, head of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. "But the Legislature must do its part by passing a comprehensive transportation budget in Olympia."

Fred Stabbert, president and chief operating officer of West Coast Paper, said some of his company’s trucks spend more time stuck in traffic than making deliveries.

"The costs of traffic congestion are a hidden tax on all of us," he said.

Phil Bussey, president of the Washington Roundtable, representing 35 business CEOs, including Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, said businesses are losing millions every year in wasted fuel and manpower. The region can’t keep adding more population and cars without fixing congestion and adding new capacity, he said.

Locke said he was heartened by the business leaders weighing in.

"Business leaders know as well as I do that an efficient statewide transportation system will be critical to continue our efforts to recruit and hold top companies in the state," he said.

Key legislators also welcomed the pressure, but House Transportation Committee co-chairwoman Maryann Mitchell, R-Federal Way, said they were "preaching to the choir." The Legislature still has deep problems fashioning a compromise, she said in an interview.

Herald writer Todd C. Frankel contributed to this report.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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