ACROSS THE STATE, commentators have hailed the Legislature's astonishing passage last month of a compromise transportation package that includes a gas tax and more than $4 billion in projects. The bill comes after five long, torturous years during which Olympia abdicated its responsibility to address Washington's increasingly decrepit and inadequate transportation infrastructure. That irresponsibility culminated in punting to voters last fall and the subsequent trouncing of Referendum 51 at the polls. By ending years of gridlock, this year's bill is clearly a step in the right direction.
Except that it won't end the gridlock, and it's not a step in the right direction.
The gridlock will remain because Tim Eyman has quietly positioned his initiative machine as a mechanism for voters to veto any legislation with the word "tax" in it. He will send this bill to the voters, probably next year, and so the state has one year to spend as much of the $4 billion as it can before the whole thing gets repealed.
The second problem is that anti-tax zealots weren't the opponents of Referendum 51. State legislators, in scaling back this year's bill from the $7.8 billion R-51, focused primarily on appeasing the anti-tax constituencythat's how 9 cents per gallon became 5.
However, King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have a special role in all this. We're where the bulk of the state's spending on both highways and nonroad projects will go, and where almost all of the biggest-ticket projects await: the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Interstate 405, a new Evergreen Point bridge, and the yet-to-be-contemplated-because-it's-simply-too- terrifying complete reconstruction of Interstate 5 from one end of Seattle to the other. A hopefully complementary regional transportation package will probably reach voters in spring 2004, but the bulk of the state's transportation money must also go to the state's three most populous and gridlocked counties.
WE'RE ALSO THE THREE counties from which a much higher percentage of R-51's "no" votes came because of its environmental impacts and overwhelming emphasis on highways. And Olympia's new package is barely better on environmental issues than R-51 was. The new transportation package does not pull the cynical stunt that R-51 didputting mere down payments on a host of megaprojects, many ill-considered, so that once such projects were started, voters needing to approve all the rest of the funding later wouldn't want to pull the plugs midproject. Instead, we pulled the plugs before the spigots could begin pouring out our money at all.
This year, lawmakers instead focused on projects that will be completed within 10 years. But in terms of the proportion of highways to transit and the actual projects selected, the green message sent by voters in the region most heavily impacted by this bill was completely ignored. And that's inexcusable.
I've argued before in these pages that our state needs a major investment in expanded and rebuilt highwaysthat our highway system is almost entirely near or past the end of its projected life and far past the cumulative usage that its builders envisioned. I've also argued that as long as the urban geography of our country and state is what it is, environmentalists' blanket antipathy to new capacity simply isn't realistic. Beyond the city limits of Seattle, there is not a community in the state where a public transit system could be designed, at any realistic cost, that would meet the needs of everyone in the community. Even if it could, large numbers of people would still prefer the private automobile. It's what our culture has voted for and embracedalbeit with plenty of corporate encouragementfor 60 years. Many people, including those in fast-growing suburban areas, would never ride a bus, ever. They, too, deserve to benefit from state transportation spending.
THAT SAID, MANY other people, especially in the tri-county area, do use buses or trains or ferries or bicycles. And there is zero money in this package for commuter transit. There's also nothing for highway maintenance. Instead, roads money is earmarked for new capacitya subtler version of the R-51 down-payment gambit. New capacity is by definition optional spending; maintenance is not.
Environmentally minded voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have had their desires ignored in this package. Most amazingly, the legislative leader who engineered this willful deafness was Seattle's own Ed Murray. Murray deserves the plaudits he received for getting something, anything, through Olympia. But in the process, he sold out his own Capitol Hill constituents, perhaps the most transit-dependent of any district in the state.
John Healy of 1000 Friends of Washington calls this bill "R-51's evil little cousin." He's right, with one important difference. R-51 asked voters what we wanted. This year, legislators knew what we wantedand ignored it.
For details on the state transportation budget, visit: leap.leg.wa.gov/leap/budget/detail/2003/t0305f.asp