Where Rubber Meets the Roads

The best and worst of Referendum 51.

Most of the ink that’s been spilled on Referendum 51 (R-51), the statewide gas-tax measure, has focused on the so-called “megaprojects”: Interstate 405, state Route 520, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, among others. But the $7.7 billion proposal, on the ballot Nov. 5, also includes dozens of smaller-ticket items, such as opening up barriers to salmon migration and widening Interstate 5 near the Canadian border. Few, if any, will be fully funded by the gas tax, leaving taxpayers on the hook for as much as $30 billion to finish the seven biggest projects alone. And if R-51 doesn’t pass in November, legislators in Olympia will have to craft a new proposal—and make some tough decisions. Which projects should taxpayers fund, and which should the state scale back or leave behind? Here’s a look at the worst—and best—of R-51’s voluminous project roster.


I-405 EXPANSION, TUKWILA TO LYNNWOOD: The problem with 405 isn’t just that the Eastside freeway is, at $1.77 billion, R-51’s greatest beneficiary. It’s that the massive highway expansion, which will widen it to as many as 18 lanes, won’t fix traffic congestion on the north-south corridor, even when it’s fully built at a final cost of more than $10 billion. That’s because road expansion doesn’t typically fix congestion. It worsens it, by encouraging people to drive at rush hour, take longer and more frequent trips, and move out to previously undeveloped areas. “It’s only going to make traffic worse in the long run, as you see land-use patterns change” to accommodate growth in outlying areas, says Eric de Place, a researcher for Northwest Environment Watch. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) acknowledges this, noting in its own environmental-impact statement that adding four lanes to 405 will only increase the average speed in the region by 1 mph. And at five times the cost of light rail or the monorail, 405 is just too expensive a “solution.” Focusing on the real choke points—such as the intersection of 405 and state Route 167 in Renton—would cost less and accomplish more.

U.S. 395, SPOKANE: Referendum 51 includes $206 million for the $1.4 billion construction of an entirely new six- to-eight-lane freeway in Spokane, which would serve as the city’s third north-south corridor. The 10-mile highway, which WSDOT says is needed because traffic has grown by a quarter in the area, would displace hundreds of low-income residents of Spokane’s East Central neighborhood and increase capacity at the interchange with Interstate 90 from six to 14 lanes. Environmentalists worry that building new freeways will only exacerbate growth problems in the already sprawling city and won’t fix critical maintenance problems that have dogged Spokane for a decade. “They haven’t been able to pass a street maintenance levy in Spokane in the last 10 years,” says Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Washington. “They don’t need a bunch of new capacity. What they do need is safety and maintenance.”

STATE ROUTE 504, MOUNT ST. HELENS: Tourists may dislike having to drive south on I-5 a few extra miles to reach Mount St. Helens, but the $350,000 R-51 devotes to building a new toll highway through the heart of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a first tiny step in a very bad direction. In July, six former members of the Mount St. Helens Scientific Advisory Board took umbrage with the plan to build the highway connecting U.S. 12 and state Route 504, noting that the proposed route “crosses directly beneath the [volcanic] crater in an area exposed to potential eruptive hazards and seasonal flooding” and is right on top of unstable volcanic rock and in the middle of “the most scientifically valuable and environmentally sensitive portion of the Monument.” Given the need for safety and maintenance funding elsewhere in the state, says Transportation Choices Coalition director Peter Hurley, the road over Mount St. Helens is “a colossally dumb idea.”


COMMUTE TRIP REDUCTION: Trip-reduction programs, which provide financial incentives for commuters to carpool, take the bus, or work at home, are among the most cost-effective and inexpensive ways to get cars off the road and open up road capacity. According to the Department of Transportation, $3 million in trip-reduction grants leveraged another $35 million in employer funding in 2001 and reduced delay in the Puget Sound region an average of 6 percent during the peak-hour morning commute —more than the reduction expected from widening I-405, even when the $10 billion project is completed. Still, trip-reduction funding “pales in comparison to the highway projects,” Ostrom says. “Anyone in their right mind who’s got a sensible set of priorities would take [more R-51] money and use it to fund these programs.”

RURAL TRANSIT GRANTS: Rural transit systems, funded by state and local taxes, took a big hit in 1999, when Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 rolled back the license-tab fees that had helped fund transit systems in towns from Raymond to Kelso. Post-695, millions of dollars in funding for rural transit systems was cut, leaving rural transit agencies unable to maintain service to outlying, low-traffic areas. Although rural transit systems are relatively inexpensive—rarely more than a few hundred thousand dollars—”their local tax base is very small,” Ostrom says. Restoring rural mobility grants helps rural transit agencies continue service to people with no other means of transportation. “It’s just a safety net for people who don’t own cars,” Ostrom says.

OTHER TRANSIT FUNDING: R-51 campaign spokesperson Lily Eng claims the measure includes “the largest amount of money the state has ever provided for public transportation”—$1.7 billion. But environmentalists say that figure is a little misleading, because it includes nearly $700 million for high-occupancy vehicle lanes that might soon be opened to all traffic, an option that the Department of Transportation is considering. Still, R-51 does include money for some worthy transit projects. Nearly $200 million would pay for passenger-rail improvements between Seattle and Blaine, and Seattle and Portland; another $99 million would fund passenger-only ferries, which—while they can facilitate sprawl by encouraging people to live across the water—are cheaper and less polluting than auto ferries, which would get $322 million from R-51. And R-51 includes $80 million for park-and-ride lots, a sticky issue for environmentalists because they encourage commuters to get in their cars instead of relying solely on transit. But others, such as state Sen. Ed Murray, an R-51 supporter, see park-and-ride lots as a bow to political reality. “If we want people in the burbs to ride buses, we need to give them somewhere to park their cars,” Murray says.



Referendum 51, the statewide measure that would raise gas taxes 9 cents a gallon, would fund the biggest freeway construction program in state history. Three-quarters of the $7.7 billion would be used to build new highways; $1.77 billion alone would be devoted to expanding the Eastside freeway, Interstate 405. The problem is that bigger, faster roads don’t reduce congestion—they worsen it by encouraging people to drive more frequently and live farther from where they work. R-51 would only exacerbate Washington’s horrific congestion and sprawl. Worse, the measure would begin dozens of highway projects but provide no funding to finish them. Voters would have to raise their taxes three more times, for a total of $30 billion, to pay for the seven biggest projects R-51 would start. And even as R-51 devotes billions to expanding highways in the suburbs and in rural areas, it leaves critical needs—such as fixing or rebuilding the damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct—unaddressed. Meanwhile, cheaper solutions that could go a long way toward addressing traffic congestion, such as trip-reduction programs and improved passenger rail and other mass transit, get a token share of R-51’s funding. Clearly, Washington needs to find a solution to its transportation crisis; R-51 isn’t it. Vote no.

Seattle Weekly Editorial Board