Legislators prepare to weigh road and rail funding options

By Bill Sheets

For The Herald

EDMONDS — If the planned Sounder commuter rail line from Seattle to Everett is to become operational, more money will be needed.

And right now state legislators fear the money isn’t available to get the train running on its planned late-2003 timetable.

That’s because a $46 million contribution for the $127 million Sound Transit project appears to have dried up when the motor-vehicle excise tax was eliminated. That’s how much the state Department of Transportation was expected to contribute, officials said.

"If we don’t have a new revenue source, it won’t be there," said state Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, a member of the House Transportation Committee. The 2002 legislative session begins Jan. 14.

And incoming Rep. Brian Sullivan, the Mukilteo Democrat who won a special election in November against then-incumbent appointee Joe Marine, R-Mukilteo, says getting the money for commuter rail should be a priority.

"We need to put that on the fast track," said Sullivan, who will serve with Cooper on the House Transportation Committee.

Even so, Sound Transit officials don’t believe the issue is urgent just yet. Their immediate priority is completing negotiations with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad over the use of rail lines, Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein said.

"I don’t think we’re going to be seeking (the $46 million) in this session of the Legislature," Somerstein said. "We would need it as soon as negotiations are complete."

Nevertheless, if legislators were to allocate the money this year, "that would be nice," Somerstein said.

After the line was approved as part of the Sound Transit package authorized by voters in 1996, it was targeted to be running by 1999. But numerous environmental issues, mostly associated with building a parallel set of tracks along the Puget Sound shoreline, had to be addressed first, said Val Batey, project manager for the Seattle-Everett rail project.

The line between Seattle and Tacoma, which does not run along the water, began operating in September 2000.

Batey said extensive precautions had to be taken on the north line to minimize erosion, and where wildlife habitat will be affected, Sound Transit had to purchase property elsewhere to provide mitigation.

Now, most of those issues have been worked through. In all, 22 different agencies were involved, Batey said.

The voter-approved $3.6 billion plan, while it raised revenue through a four-tenths of a cent increase in the sales tax and a three-tenths of a cent increase in the gas tax in the Sound Transit service area, was also dependent on state and federal funds.

Transportation is expected to be a featured item in the upcoming legislative session. Gov. Gary Locke has already developed a transportation funding package, and each of the four party caucuses in the Legislature is working on its own version, legislators said.

Locke’s proposal to raise $8.5 billion over 10 years is based on a 9 cents per gallon increase in the state’s gas tax, phased in over three years; an increase in other highway-related user fees, including a 20 percent gross weight surcharge for trucks, a gross weight fee for motor homes, and a 3-cent diesel surcharge to support freight mobility projects; and a phase-in of a 1.5 percent sales-and-use tax on new and used automobiles. Locke also proposes taking advantage of low interest rates to maximize bonding capacity.

Legislators are talking about similar ideas. Cooper noted that the gas tax has to be used for the highway system (roads and ferries) and cannot be used for rail, which leaves one or more of the others as the option for commuter rail.

"We are trying to look at all possibilities," said Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sullivan said there could be creative ways to find the money, such as reviving the Referendum 49 bonds from 1998, which were put on hold when removal of the car-tab tax wiped out their backing revenue, or interfund borrowing.

Sullivan said the federal transportation funds recently procured for the state by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray will require matching state funds.

Shin said it’s possible that the Legislature will approve some taxes or fees and put the rest up for a statewide vote.

Cooper said that while he would like to get a package passed through the Legislature —"at some point we have to take the risk" — he believes at least part will have to go to the voters.

Though Democrats have a two-member majority in the House now, "there are a few Democrats who don’t want to vote for it without putting the referendum clause on it," Cooper said. "There’s no money any other way."

Bill Sheets is the Edmonds editor for The Enterprise newspapers. He can be reached at 425-673-6525 or by e-mail at sheets@heraldnet.com.

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