Panacea or Pandering?

by CHRIS MARR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & atching Dino Rossi roll out his $15.5 billion transportation plan in Spokane last month, it would have been hard for the average commuter to resist the temptation to join Representatives John Ahern and Lynn Schindler, Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke and local city officials such as Nancy McLaughlin and Diana Wilhite in singing its praises. After all, on its face it promises a comprehensive plan to solve all of Washington's congestion woes without the inconvenience of new funding. Of course, any rudimentary knowledge of Washington's transportation problems, or a check of the election calendar, would have revealed it for what it is -- a cruel hoax perpetrated on taxpayers hungry for much needed transportation improvements.

For starters, the Rossi plan funds commuter relief primarily for the Puget Sound with a bold $10 billion raid on the general fund -- tapping scarce dollars used to fund schools, public safety and other critical needs. Surely the irony was not lost on Commissioner Mielke, who successfully appealed to the legislature this year for millions in special mental health funding for Spokane County. The Rossi transportation plan would effectively gut our ability to fund such requests, not to mention providing for quality education for our kids or keeping dangerous offenders behind bars.

Specifically, Dino Rossi would fund projects such as an eight-lane 520 Bridge and a new Alaskan Way tunnel by diverting the sales tax on new and used car purchases. Though it may seem logical, it flies in the face of the user-pays approach transportation funding has long been based on. It would mean that a Spokane driver who purchases a new car and drives only 12,000 miles a year would be asked to pony up the same amount as a Bellevue commuter who drives twice the miles on much more expensive roads. This amounts to additional subsidies for Puget Sound commuters instead of more equitable approaches such as reasonable tolls on the Lake Washington floating bridges. Additional sleight of hand would hijack nearly $700 million in local voter-approved funding for Sound Transit and stick it in state coffers. Setting aside the legal issues, it's a move that effectively precludes lower cost transit and light rail solutions in the future.

Speaking of equity, for a plan that bills itself as a "statewide" proposal, it decidedly focuses on Puget Sound projects. Excluding a purported $2.2 billion investment in the North-South freeway, it spends only $129 million -- less than 1 percent of diverted tax revenues -- on seven small Eastern Washington projects. And watch out for Rossi's attempt to make "congestion relief" the top transportation priority -- trumping safety, maintenance and economic vitality. This is code for moving expensive Puget Sound projects to the front of the line, at the expense of freight mobility, farm-to-market roads and modest investments in Eastern Washington projects with far greater bang for the buck than floating mega-bridges and waterfront tunnels.

No legislator is more passionate than I am about the need to move ahead quickly on the North-South Corridor. The costs, in terms of safety, air pollution and wear on our city streets, continue to increase as we admire the problem. And each year of delay needlessly compounds construction and right-of-way costs. Though I was successful in obtaining an additional $99 million in the 2007-2009 budget, it's a problem that demands a realistic, long-term solution. This includes reprioritizing our state transportation budget and utilizing tolling and other user fees in the most congested areas of the state -- freeing up valuable dollars for areas where tolling is not an option, as with the North-South Corridor. Other funding might include fees on container freight, which compete with local drivers for space on Washington's highways. It will also require a commitment on the part of local jurisdictions, which will benefit from reduced costs and development opportunities a new freeway will create. And of course, it will require that the federal government step up to its responsibility to restore solvency to the Highway Trust Fund and invest in our nation's crumbling highway infrastructure.

Solving Washington's transportation crisis is a complex problem that is not solved by offering up pie-in-the sky proposals without the funding to implement them. Using public frustration over the lack of investment in our roads as a political stunt does nothing to move us towards a solution -- it merely builds public cynicism and promotes continued delay. As Rossi reminded those who came to his press conference in search of real transportation solutions -- "a plan without money is not a plan." So what does that make a plan that steals scarce dollars from schools, health care and our prison system and continues lopsided funding for Seattle area projects? Pure politics.

Washington State Senator Chris Marr, a Democrat, represents Spokane's 6th Legislative District and serves as Assistant Majority Floor Leader and Vice-Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Vaccination Happy Hour @ Spokane Arena

Wed., June 16, 5-7 p.m.
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