Twenty Years of Neglect

The Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle's elevated, crumbling waterfront freeway.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle's elevated, crumbling waterfront freeway.

Remarkably, last month, our Legislature passed a transportation bill, a long-stalled package that will provide for money to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington and to expand the Eastside suburbs’ main freeway, Interstate 405, among other projects. Legislators crowed about their accomplishment. Only one thing marred the celebration. Most likely, the projects still won’t happen.

That’s because spending on those projects, from a statewide 9.5-cent gas tax increase, is dependent on voters passing a matching regional transportation package in less than 20 months, by January 2007. The state package would contribute less than half the cost of these projects: $2 billion of the $4 billion for the preferred, underground option for the Alaskan Way Viaduct; a bit under $1 billion of the more than $3 billion necessary for I-405; and only half a billion of the $2 billion to $3 billion needed for a new 520 bridge. And that’s not including cost overruns.

For people still reeling from the shock of gas prices this year, it seems like a long shot that Puget Sound–area voters will match the state money—especially considering that the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID), the body charged since 2002 with coming up with a regional plan for voters, has been deadlocked for the past three years on how to go about it. The RTID, comprised of council members from Pierce, Snohomish, and King counties, got as far as agreeing on a package to send to voters last year, but business interests whose backing was needed to fund a public-relations campaign balked, saying they didn’t think the measure would pass.

If it wouldn’t pass last year, it’s hard to see how a measure would pass in November 2006. That’s the one and only shot RTID will have to get voter approval. It can’t come sooner because RTID is also counting on the Legislature to pass a series of reforms aimed at expanding funding options for the district. Such legislation passed the House this year but stalled in the Senate.

The current RTID plan for raising the rest of the money for these huge projects involves intrinsically regressive sales-tax hikes. Those will hit ordinary households hard. And that’s not all. The relatively poor funding in the state bill for the 520 bridge—Eastside Republican legislators wanted more money for I-405 instead—means that the balance for the 520 bridge will almost certainly come from tolls.

It’s a pretty tall order. As Jon Scholes, transportation aide to King County Council member Julia Patterson, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “To tell [taxpayers] that we need more is difficult, but it’s the reality. Twenty years of transportation neglect isn’t taken care of with one vote.”

Or, for that matter, with two elections.

There’s still more on the Puget Sound region’s transportation wish list, starting with the need to completely rebuild Interstate 5 through Seattle. Tack on the money taxpayers are now paying for Sound Transit and the troubled Seattle Monorail Project, and it’s hard to imagine voters not saying “Enough!” at some point. Soon.

To complicate matters, Tim Eyman’s new statewide initiative to implement $30 car-license renewals would repeal motor vehicle excise taxes as a means for RTID to raise money, making it more likely that the package will depend heavily on the sales tax.

This is the price politicians, and we, pay for waiting 20 years to try to fund these projects. We’re being asked to tax ourselves for all of it all at once. If we don’t by January 2007, the state-approved money for the projects goes off the table. Politicians are betting that the deadline will force RTID to get its act together and that the circumstances will force voters to swallow hard and approve it.

But will they? Pierce and Snohomish county voters really don’t care that much about Seattle’s gridlock; they do care about their pocketbooks. When the Legislature passed the transportation package, every Seattle-area newspaper chose to focus its headline on the gas tax, not on what it would pay for. Voters aren’t likely to forget that they’re already paying at the pump. Sound Transit is also happily collecting money. And Seattle car owners are in sticker shock from the taxes being used to fund the monorail.

RTID will get one chance to pass this package. What happens if they don’t?

We’re likely to find out.

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