by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

The past four or five years have been frustrating for state legislators in Olympia. Tight margins have led to bitter politics, making progress hard to come by. It's been frustrating for voters, too, as they have shown in their complete willingness to circumvent the traditional approach to lawmaking by supporting a variety of tax-cutting initiatives. One particularly frustrating issue that remains stuck in the collective craw is transportation.

The state's quest to fix its crumbling, overwhelmed infrastructure -- roads, bridges, ferries -- has been a one-step-forward-two-steps-back exercise since the legislature referred Referendum 49 to voters back in 1998. Republicans -- then in control of the legislature -- put the bonding plan for road repairs to voters, and they embraced it. But the very next year, initiative-meister Tim Eyman placed on the ballot the notorious I-695, which reduced the car tab fees to a flat $30. Voters embraced that, too, perhaps without knowing that their vote essentially gutted the plan they voted for the year before, R-49. Of course, in their silence, Republicans who supported R-49 did nothing to point out that lower fees would mean crappier streets.

The scenario played out again last session, when legislators, somewhat cowed by Eyman's string of success, vowed to get something done on the transportation issue. But after a full session and three special sessions, they seemed to throw up their hands in July and concede-- confirming to some, perhaps, that they really can't get anything done.

Over those futile years, roads have only become worse, a huge hole has opened in the state budget and one of the state's stalwarts, Boeing, moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago, citing bad traffic as part of the reason. Whether it will move the rest of its operation (officials say there are no plans to) has everyone on pins and needles.

Many in state government now say it's time to quit hitting the snooze button and to hear the wake-up call.

"There are few occasions when you look at the future of your state and you realize that you're at a crossroads," says Andrew Johnsen, Governor Gary Locke's transportation policy advisor. "This is indeed a watershed moment, and we are going to have to move forward or continue the backsliding."

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, puts it more bluntly, telling the Associated Press that "I personally feel that legislators who don't step up to this [transportation] crisis -- and I'm talking about friends on both sides of the aisle -- should be replaced."

Watershed? Be replaced? This is transportation we're talking about here, a highly technical subject that can put even the geekiest wonks to sleep. There must be more going on here than meets the eye. And there is. Many legislators see this session -- and this issue in particular -- as a kind of last shot at redemption in the voters' eyes. Transportation has become a referendum on their effectiveness.

And the time is ripe. Their foe Tim Eyman is wounded, with citizens now wondering if his motivation was personal gain more than the betterment of the state. They have at least three sessions of less-than-bold governance to break out of. Heck, they're even looking to the governor for help on this one.

Locke has reconstructed some of the pieces left on the table last summer in creating a $14 billion transportation plan. So far, although it has yet to make it out of the House of Representatives, it seems to be winning support. There may be some question about the overall size of the package, but most seem optimistic that it will see the light of day. Under Locke's plan, a 9 & cent; per gallon increase to the gas tax will be phased in over three years. There will be a one-time 1.5 percent tax on all purchases of new and used vehicles. A 20 percent fee will be levied on freight haulers, along with some other smaller fees. Locke estimates that the average family will pay an additional $84 per year to fund the plan. The Locke plan would also grant jurisdictions with greater needs (aka, Puget Sound) the authority to establish additional revenue-gathering measures. In the Seattle area, for example, where I-405, SR 520 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct all need major work, the money just can't keep up. Under this part of the plan, the voters in the counties involved could choose to levy even higher taxes on themselves.

Why is transportation such a priority? Anybody who's had a filling knocked loose by driving over a pothole knows the answer to that one, but the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation also identified some disturbing trends. To begin with, Washington is the most dependent of the 50 states on international trade, making transportation all the more important. And the state is just not keeping up: There are more roads, but less money. The state is responsible for 7,000 miles of road, 3,000 bridges and 29 ferries (serving the nation's busiest ferry system). The last time the gas tax was raised was 1991 (by just a penny to its current 23 & cent; per gallon level), and inflation has outpaced that increase. Most important, the commission calculated that traffic congestion robs the state economy of more than $2 billion in lost productivity every year.

Locke points out that the boost in spending would create more than 20,000 jobs, but would also preserve jobs that might be lost if business owners see greener pastures -- and less congested freeways -- somewhere else. Beyond dollars and cents, there is a very human dimension to the need for more money for projects. Take SR 270, which runs from Pullman to the Idaho border. It's a two-lane road that has a vehicular injury rate twice the state average. Having a strapped state budget has, in that case, literally cost lives. Locke's plan is targeted to specific projects, and 270 would be slated for expansion to a four-lane, divided highway. It also contains funding earmarked for the North Spokane Corridor.

So what can get in the way of bolstering so basic a government service as transportation? As usual, politics. In a nutshell, Republicans don't want to be seen as eager for a tax increase. It's an election year, and some Republicans see the best path to reclaiming control of the state house in being anti-tax warriors. So how can they get some political cover and address what most agree to be a glaring need? The Republican answer has been, "Let the people decide."

If this impulse prevails, voters may be asked in May or June to decide whether the governor's plan is sound. Locke and many leading Democrats, perhaps not wanting to risk the voters' anti-tax sentiment, think the Legislature should just act -- after all, that's what they were elected to do. Others believe a vote is inevitable. (Eyman had promised he would challenge the plan by initiative if the people weren't given a chance to vote on it, but he's been mum since it was revealed that he had been diverting campaign funds to his own bank account and lying about it.)

"I'm resigned to the fact that this will have to go to the voters one way or another," says Sen. James West of Spokane. "What we need to do is embrace that and make it our friend -- you turn it into a positive."

West cites a recent poll suggesting that people would support a 6 & cent; or 9 & cent; gas tax hike for road improvements, but they also told pollsters they want to be able to vote on it. West also says this issue offers a chance to repair relations with the voters, who have shown their anger in recent elections. But he places blame for the transportation mess on Locke.

"I heard a guy over here comment that Eyman was like Robin Hood," says West. "Well, the only reason Robin Hood existed was because King Richard had left the kingdom. When King Richard came back, Robin Hood faded into obscurity."

West agrees that something needs to be done, adding that if the 9 & cent; plan is defeated by voters, state leaders should immediately come back with a 6 & cent; plan. "Zero shouldn't be an option," he says.

So far, the governor is sticking to his guns that he should sign the plan into law, not the voters. But as time runs out -- and with revised revenue projections coming out on Feb. 19, the session will get more complicated -- he may soften that stance. Otherwise, Robin Hood may get another chance.

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...