PULLMAN — If Gov. Gary Locke was eager to debate his $8.5 billion transportation package in Eastern Washington on Monday, he was disappointed.
Members of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce seemed more interested in water supply, ergonomic regulations and prevailing wage laws when they quizzed the governor.
That was something of a surprise considering the transportation proposals use big gas tax increases in an attempt to reduce traffic congestion, mostly in the Puget Sound region.
The biggest traffic jam most people encountered on the way to Monday’s lunch with the governor likely occurred at the buffet line.
"The state does have a need for better transportation," said Joseph Kerr, chamber president. "We have to pay for it somehow."
Locke’s proposal includes money to build a divided highway for the eight miles between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho. The present two-lane Highway 270 has been the scene of 146 accidents in the past decade, Locke noted, as traffic between the two college towns exceeds the highway’s design limits.
Kerr acknowledged that the chance to improve Highway 270 was a major selling point for the governor’s proposal in Whitman County.
"It’s nice to see we will directly benefit on a road that a lot of people use every day," Kerr said.
The governor’s proposal would raise $8.5 billion with a 9-cent increase in the 23-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, phased in at 3 cents per year; a 1.5 percent sales surtax on new and used cars, also phased in; a 20 percent surcharge on gross-weight fees for commercial trucks; a 3-cent-per-gallon surcharge on diesel fuel; and a higher gross weight fee on motor homes.
Locke’s proposal also authorizes locally approved regional taxes that could pay for $5.1 billion in projects in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
The greatest worry in Pullman was that higher gas taxes and sales taxes on vehicles would drive customers into Idaho, where such taxes are lower.
"That has the potential to devastate car dealers in Pullman and the Spokane Valley and Vancouver and the Tri-Cities," said state Rep. Don Cox, R-Colfax, who attended the meeting.
Locke said state law requires that taxes be uniform across the state, and there was no way to reduce taxes in border counties that face competition from other states.
The governor repeated his message that traffic jams in the Puget Sound region were hurting the economy of the whole state.
One person wondered if funding for mass transit systems would be hurt by the spending on highways. Locke said his proposal includes as much as $600 million for mass transit.
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