Traffic package: Already roadkill?

If there’s any hope for a $17.8 billion plan to ease traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region, officials must find a way to pump some life into it – and quick.

If not, observers say, voters in November likely will reject tax hikes to widen roads and extend light rail across Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

“Emotion, emotion, emotion – capture it and you can win at the polls,” said Jami Warner, a public relations expert and campaign consultant from Sacramento, Calif.

The problem is that the so-called Roads and Transit tax proposal is boring – and expensive.

“All I can think of is the price tag,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. “I wouldn’t want to be the person trying to massage the $17.8 billion part of it.”

Don’t bother, some say. It’s doomed.

Tim Eyman, the Mukilteo man who has donned a gorilla suit and slogan-covered T-shirts to bring attention to tax-fighting initiatives, believes Roads and Transit is so poorly conceived that he doesn’t need to bother with an opposition campaign.

“I’m just looking at this dead thing going to the ballot box, saying, ‘Do I want to shoot this dead thing?’ I say, ‘No, it’s already dead,’ ” Eyman said.

Transportation planners first gave the tax package names that would seem more suited to robots from Star Wars – RTID and ST2.

In recent months, they’ve taken to calling the measure Roads and Transit.

That may not be good enough.

“It’s boring,” Warner said. “What they’re trying to do is brand this process to get voters engaged in it. They may want to consider something more contemporary.”

Supporters of Roads and Transit say they will win at the polls by having direct, frank conversations with voters, focusing on what’s in it for them.

“Catchy slogans don’t work,” said Dave Gossett, a Snohomish County councilman who helped put together the roads portion of the tax package.

“I think it’s very important for people to identify what this plan does to make their lives better,” he said.

Connect with voters

The strategy for the campaign is to connect voters with highway and transit projects that will happen in their neighborhoods, said Kelly Evans, campaign director for Roads and Transit.

In Monroe, for instance, backers will chat with voters about finally widening all of Highway 522 to four lanes, and how construction will start on a long-promised U.S. 2 bypass around town.

Down the road in Snohomish, potential voters will hear about widening Highway 9 all the way to Lake Stevens.

In Everett, talk will focus on rebuilding the ramps at both ends of the U.S. 2 trestle to eliminate long lines and a traffic pinch that commuters suffer through each workday.

Those issues will resonate with voters in the Puget Sound area because, in poll after poll, untangling gridlock tops the list of concerns, Roads and Transit supporters say.

“The voters are really smart. They get that we are behind the times – that we’re paying for decisions that were made three decades ago,” Evans said.

The “victory through conversation” strategy worked last fall, when area voters got to decide the fate of a big transit tax. Initiative 912 would have rolled back a 9.5-cent-per-gallon tax hike.

Volunteers hit the streets, and voters were barraged with direct-mail pamphlets and advertising, all focusing on the benefits of the tax to local roads.

“We knew we had to go out and successfully make our arguments locally, and as narrowly focused as possible,” said Mark Funk, a spokesman on the successful No on I-912 campaign. “I think we’re going to have to do the same with roads and rail.”

Forced marriage

The Roads and Transit tax package is a forced marriage between a county-driven roads package and a second round of Sound Transit projects.

Called the Regional Transportation Investment District (or RTID, in government speak), the roads portion would spend $7 billion on widening highways in the region.

A total of $1.5 billion would be earmarked for Snohomish County projects.

Sound Transit 2 (or ST2, for transit wonks) would spend $10.8 billion on expanding light rail throughout the region, including $1.45 billion to extend it to south Everett.

Is the bill too large?

The Roads and Transit proposal would increase sales and motor vehicle excise taxes.

The proposed taxes would add 6 cents to a $10 purchase, and $80 to license tabs for every $10,000 of a car’s value. In other words, a $20,000 vehicle would carry a $160 Roads and Transit tab hike.

Eyman, who made his political splash with an initiative mandating $30 license tabs, is aghast.

“The size is gargantuan,” he said.

Taxpayers will vote no because they don’t trust that the money is being well spent, Eyman said. He’s been able to gauge the voters’ mood in the past, winning seven out of nine times he’s pitched initiatives since 1998.

And there’s more.

If you factor in the inflation, interest and operation costs, the Roads and Transit package will cost tens of billions of dollars more than the listed $17.8 billion price.

And no matter how you total it up, the $17.8 billion price tag likely will be a big obstacle, Donovan said.

Still, the political science professor said he doesn’t have a read on whether the tax package will fail or succeed. He said its chances are improved because transportation is a top concern.

Warner, the political consultant, agreed.

She suggested that drilling down to exactly what the Roads and Transit package will accomplish may appeal to voters.

“The advantage is it means what it says,” Warner said. “That’s very important when public officials are trying to involve the public in an extremely complicated public policy issue.”

As for the campaign, it’s probably too late to move away from Roads and Transit, so perhaps a logo, a secondary slogan or some other image could create emotion, Warner said.

In the marketing industry, it’s called branding.

“A name isn’t a brand,” Warner said. “A brand is an emotion. It’s a promise.”

Nike’s brand is achievement. Disneyland’s is a happy childhood.

What’s Road and Transit’s brand? Stay tuned. Strategies for the fall campaign are being put together right now.

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@ heraldnet.com.

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