Transportation Locke-up

Is Gov. Gary Locke scared to address our transportation crisis?

Angry Vashon Island residents, 307 of them, sailed an Argosy cruise ship into Olympia on a foggy morning last Thursday to protest ferry cuts. Old people walking with canes, young parents carrying babies, kids wearing ferry boats carved out of boxes around their torsos, and teenagers in wheelchairs, these Vashonites all looked like they were out for blood, and no wonder. They feel victimized by Tim Eyman's Initiative 695, which cut the car-tab tax to a flat $30 and eliminated $1.1 billion from the state budget in the process. Legislators scrambling to cut costs plan to kill Vashon's passenger-only ferries. Since these boats take 600 residents to their jobs everyday, the island is fighting like hell to stave off the cuts. Vashonites have a plan to pay for the passenger-only ferries by asking voters to approve big fare increases as early as this summer.

Island residents are taking action because they feel state government has abandoned them. Some legislators wonder if Gov. Gary Locke is fueling Vashon's fears.

"Gary Locke is incredibly popular and incredibly skilled," says Rep. Ed Murray, D-Capitol Hill. That said, Murray adds that he wishes that the governor would "risk his popularity and be a leader on transportation." Instead, Murray and other lawmakers charge, Locke has ducked the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about long-term transportation solutions, even as the voters blew a $570 million hole in the Department of Transportation's budget when they passed I-695 in November.

The governor's proposed budget gives no new money to the Department of Transportation, leaving it with about $2.1 billion, less than what the department had to spend in 1997. This reduced budget means highways only have enough money for basic maintenance, but not enough for new roads, congestion relief projects, and all the proposed safety improvements. Ferries now have no capital budget at all and will have to enact a sizable fare increase on boats that carry cars.

The only new transportation funding Locke's budget allocates is $200 million over two years for bus and rail service. But Dan Snow of the Washington Transportation Association says that money only makes up for 42 percent of the money transit lost when I-695 passed. Forty to sixty percent of the state's bus service will be cut even if the Legislature agrees to Locke's $200 million, according to Snow.

It's clear why Locke won't pony up more transportation money. There isn't any money left after I-695 bludgeoned the budget. Most Democrats accept this new fiscal reality but say the governor could offer innovative ideas in lieu of budget dollars. He is doing neither.

Of course, the citizens are going to have to pay for solutions one way or the other. And since voters just gave themselves a big tax cut last November, it's easy to see why the governor is wary of asking them to pay local taxes to keep the cars, ferries, and buses rolling. After all, the governor's top priority this session, besides protecting education, is to give voters a property-tax cut, says Locke spokesman Ed Penhale. "If there's a way transportation funding can fit into this picture, we'll take a look at it," Penhale adds. The governor is leaving it up to legislators, citizens, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation to come up with the proposals he'll "look at."

Meanwhile, the governor does not see the I-695 tax revolt as a referendum on education funding. He has pledged to spend money to hire 1,000 new teachers to reduce elementary class sizes. It seems he hasn't missed a chance this session to reassert that educating kids for future jobs should be the state's main focus right now. He likes to illustrate his commitment with anecdotes about his own relatively new role as a father.

Both Democrats and moderate Republicans claim to agree with his pro-schools stance, but they say it's vital that he show the same concern for roads. "It really annoys me that he thinks we're going to hurt education," says Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma. Aware of the scarcity of funds in all state budgets, lawmakers are looking not just at giving local governments the ability to impose new transportation taxes, but also at imposing user fees for roads and devising whatever other creative ways they can imagine to keep citizens mobile. Any such measure will require the public's approval, however, thanks to I-695's provision requiring a vote on all future tax increases.

Lawmakers say that Locke's silence will make it more difficult to convince citizens to tax themselves. Murray says Locke should be using his popularity and his "bully pulpit" to push the most feasible solutions through.

Scott Rutherford, a city planning expert who teaches at the University of Washington, doubts voters will appreciate many of the new taxes and fees legislators are talking about proposing. He asks, "How do you sell it to people?" Many legislators think that Locke has the smarts to find a way. So far, though, he hasn't shown the interest.

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