Gridlock Politics

Party bickering, the GOP antitax crusade, and Seattle arrogance stand in the way of replacing the dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct and the aging 520 bridge.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct might have to fall down before politicians find the will to replace it. The earthquake-damaged, 51-year-old, four-mile elevated state highway carries 110,000 vehicles daily along the central waterfront—one-quarter of the north-south traffic through Seattle. It is metropolitan Puget Sound's most visible evidence of the state transportation crisis, the imbalance of needs and money. The state Department of Transportation estimates that the cost of "key projects" in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties is more than $19 billion. That figure includes replacing two of the region's vital transportation structures, which have reached the end of their useful lives: the viaduct, a key part of state Route 99, which would cost $2.7 billion to $4.1 billion, and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, state Route 520, which would cost $2.1 billion to $2.5 billion. Any rational list of projects of statewide significance would have these two at the top.

Yet the prospect of the 2005 Legislature funding them seems remote. Never mind the chances of addressing the region's or the state's backlog of other projects. In fact, despite all the political changes in November's election, as the Legislature prepares for the session that starts in January, the political gridlock that has hampered upkeep of the state transportation infrastructure seems as rigid as ever.

Last week, Republican Dino Rossi was certified as governor-elect and quickly reiterated his mantra of no new taxes. Republican Senate Floor Leader Luke Esser of Bellevue expects the new governor—presuming Rossi is governor after a statewide hand recount—to oppose all new taxes, including new transportation funding. A Gov. Rossi would relish a role in foiling tax increases proposed in the Legislature. (Dems seized control of both the House and Senate in November.)

This year's election actually made the climate for transportation progress more difficult, says House Transportation Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle. "The campaign has made voting for transportation taxes more radioactive," says Murray. In 2003, a bipartisan majority of the Legislature raised the gas tax by 5 cents. The "nickel package" was the first increase in the gas tax in 13 years and is expected to generate around $4.1 billion for road projects around the state over the next decade. During the 2004 campaign, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Christine Gregoire ran radio ads attacking Rossi for "raising taxes," since, as a state senator from Sammamish, he supported the "nickel package." At the same time, the leadership of Senate Republicans used their political action committee to attack Democratic senators for hiking the gas tax. Radioactive is right.

Murray says Democrats will want a lot of Republicans to back any new transportation taxes. "They are going to have to round up 20 to 25 Republicans in the House," says Murray. Only 12 House Republicans supported 2003's nickel package.

For their part, Republican legislative leaders think talk of new transportation taxes is premature. "Do we need a statewide gas-tax increase? No!" says Republican House Floor Leader Doug Ericksen of Bellingham, noting that he and other legislators just raised the gas tax. Republicans want to see how the Transportation Department performs with that new money. "Republicans want to use money more effectively," says Ericksen.

It isn't just Democratic-Republican divisions that make Puget Sound's megaprojects so difficult to fund, says Republican Sen. Esser. "I just don't see Democratic legislators from Tacoma, East King County, and Spokane agreeing that 520 and the viaduct are the top transportation priorities in the state," says Esser. "Every legislator in the state has a transportation project in their backyard."

Bellingham's Ericksen notes pointedly: "The people of downtown Seattle are paying $1 billion for a monorail. How about putting some pennies in the coffer for the viaduct?"

Republicans stress that the Puget Sound region will have to come up with a lot of money to replace 520 and the viaduct, while Democrats see state government as having primary responsibility for those state highways. Democrat Murray says, "520 and the viaduct are state roads. The state has to pay for those." Republican Esser counters, "As a practical matter, we will have to do it regionally."

Republicans back a plan to put a tax package before the voters of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties to kick off serious funding of the region's megaprojects. Esser argues the region is the most prosperous and has the greatest transportation needs, so local voters need to pony up first.

Democrats feel the state would be abdicating its responsibility for state highways by expecting the region to take the lead on replacing 520 and the viaduct.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels isn't helping matters by insisting that a tunnel replace the viaduct, rather than the state building a new elevated highway. On Monday, Dec. 6, Nickels and the state Department of Transportation announced that a tunnel is the preferred solution among several proposals—despite the fact it will cost $1 billion more just on paper. (As for the cost of burying a highway next to a waterfront, has anyone at City Hall heard of Boston's Big Dig?) "The mayor has said we will lead the effort to secure the extra funding for a tunnel," says spokesperson Casey Corr.

Gold plating the viaduct is precisely the kind of attitude that will drive legislators from other parts of the state crazy. "Seattle was trying to load up the costs so we'd pay for the redevelopment of the waterfront," says Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland. The mayor can insist all he wants that the additional cost of tunneling would be covered by the federal government, the Port of Seattle, and local taxpayers—not state government. But state legislators from other regions will still resent the idea that Seattle is choosing the most expensive solution to one of the state's most expensive problems. That resentment, in turn, will make it harder to break the political gridlock in Olympia and get state money.

All sides of the transportation debate do, however, agree on one thing: The gas tax will not be enough to fund state transportation needs. Recall 2003's "nickel package," says Esser. "It went up a nickel, and it doesn't even come close to funding the megaprojects." In fact, the nickel package only raises $4.1 billion over 10 years for the entire state. That would be just barely enough to replace the viaduct with a tunnel under the central waterfront, never mind other projects. "Gas as a revenue generator is in its final years," predicts Murray. As the fuel efficiency of cars rises, the gas tax's power to raise money will decline.

"We have to do some innovative things," says incoming state Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. There is bipartisan consensus that tolls will need to be put on the megaprojects to raise enough money to pay for them. "A new 520 bridge will be a tolled bridge," says state Transportation Department Secretary Doug MacDonald. The new generation of tolls will not be collected with coins at booths but, rather, with radio transponders on car windshields. Not all projects, however, are fit for tolls; the viaduct, with its crazy quilt of on- and off-ramps, is an example.

Another user fee that attracts bipartisan support is the so-called HOT lane, which would allow solo drivers to buy their way onto HOV lanes that are currently reserved for transit, van pools, and car pools. The toll for HOT-lane access for single- occupancy motorists would also be collected from a windshield transponder. Last year, state Sen. Jim Horn, R–Mercer Island, blocked a HOT-lane pilot project on nine miles of state Route 167 between Auburn and Renton, but Horn was defeated in November's election. Leaders from both parties expect it to pass this year.

Democrat Murray is intrigued by a couple of other ideas that probably will not appeal to many Republicans: congestion pricing, or charging people to use highways at busy times of day, and a tax on a vehicle's miles traveled. "I would expect a number of pilot projects to get out of the Legislature this year," he says. He believes such experiments will help determine what taxpayers and politicians are willing to withstand. "We don't know what is fair and what can survive the initiative process, but the gas tax alone is not going to get us there," Murray says. Such modest steps might be progress, but all it will take is one major natural disaster, like an earthquake, to render them insufficient.

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