by Pia K. Hansen

While the Puget Sound area is choking on its congestion on a daily basis, drivers in the eastern part of Washington state are facing dangerous two-lane highways, unmarked crossings, deep ruts in freeways and bridges that need restoration. As the trucks roll on, the state's budget deficit grows, making it harder and harder to find money for road maintenance. Now the legislature has put the future of some of the state's roads squarely in the hands of voters.

If you use the roads, you are going to have to pay for them: That's the idea behind Referendum 51. This proposal promises $7.8 billion for fixing the state's roads over the next 10 years. The money to finance this road bonanza will come from a one-time 1 percent tax on car sales, a phased-in weight fee increase for large trucks (not pickups or RVs) and a 9 & cent; increase in the gas tax, phased in over two years. If you drive 12,000 miles a year and get 24 miles per gallon, the gas tax amounts to $45 per year.

"The central Puget Sound area is one of the most congested areas in the entire nation," says Lily Eng, spokesperson for Yes on R-51. "But R-51 would benefit the entire state, also Eastern Washington."

There has been a lot of resistance against a gas tax in Eastern Washington, because there is an assumption that most of such a tax would stay on the West Side. And some of the big-ticket items are on the West Side.

"About $1.7 billion would go toward I-405. That's a freeway that runs North-South in the Seattle area," says Eng. "Yes, I guess that is nearly one-quarter of the total amount of money."

But there are at least 10 traffic projects in Eastern Washington on the to-do list if R-51 passes. Among them are the widening of I-90 from Argonne to Sullivan Road in the Valley, the beginning of construction of the North-South freeway, and construction of a four-lane divided highway from Pullman toward Moscow, ending at the Idaho border.

"This time around, there are some big needs in the Puget Sound area, and they do get more expensive. Land in Seattle just costs more than land in Moses Lake -- that's a reality," says Eng.

Eng adds that regardless of where you live in Washington, you have to consider the infrastructure as one large, interconnected system.

"That the Seattle area is the most congested and has the most traffic delays impacts people and commerce across the state -- it impact the entire state's economy," she explains. "But here is the thing: Instead of spreading the money out on every single area of the state equally, the state is trying to spend the money where it's really needed -- and not to spend it where it's not really needed."

But the opposition is hammering away at R-51. In a report released on Wednesday, Citizens for Real Transportation Solutions (CRTS) -- a group affiliated with 1,000 Friends of Washington -- blasted the referendum, especially in four key areas.

"R-51 continues the habit of spending a little money on lots of projects," says John Healy, spokesperson for CRTS. "It commits funding to projects that don't have budget or solid plans already in place, it fails to provide adequate funding for the existing infrastructure and it doesn't take into consideration the current state of Washington's economy."

As an example of projects being funded without any set budget yet, Healy mentions Spokane's North-South Freeway.

"Spending $260 million on that, without knowing what the final cost is going to be -- I mean, that just doesn't pass the straight-faced test," he says.

He maintains that R-51 is going to be a bad deal for the East Side of the state.

"Over 10 years, Spokane is going to contribute $531 million in taxes and get about $285 million back -- that's a loss of $241 million," says Healy. "Of every two dollars, only one comes back to Spokane."

That's exactly the type of comment that sets Eng off. "You know, you can't look at it like that. People have to stop thinking like they live in little pockets out there," she says. "You can't just look at the numbers -- you have to look at the benefits for the entire state."

She says the R-51 projects include plenty of improvements on the East Side. "All the major traffic corridors in the state will be addressed to make sure that commerce can move across the state," says Eng. "We waste so much money being stuck in traffic. If the truck with parts for your company in Spokane is stuck in traffic in Seattle, not fixing the situation in the Puget Sound area is going to hurt Eastern Washington as well."

CRTS is also criticizing R-51 for not raising enough money to complete the many projects on the list -- only to get them started.

"We are still going to have to raise $34 billion to pay to finish just the biggest projects in the package," says Healy. "Those are Department of Transportation numbers. Every dollar raised for transportation for the rest of your life is going to go toward paying for this."

Eng says voting for R-51 is the only way out of the state's transportation crisis. If it passes, R-51 will also funnel some money into public transportation, including Spokane's STA.

"This is the largest amount of money ever provided for public transportation by the state," says Eng. "It will go to transit, to high-occupancy lanes and to transit in rural areas and for those who are disabled."

But Healy says that's not necessarily going to make it easier to commute anywhere in Washington.

"They say what we need to do is build lots of general purpose capacity, expenses be damned. We are saying we have limited resources," he explains. "They talk about how 10 percent of this thing is devoted to safety. Well, building wide freeways is not a safety program. We say we need to manage those roads we already have -- if we build more they are just going to be filled."

Several environmental groups across the state have also come out against R-51, saying that it's only going to result in more pavement -- not in smarter choices. But Eng says she hopes voters will look at the proposal that's on the ballot for what it is, instead of hoping for a better plan to pop up in the future.

"We never said we were going to fix everything, but now it's before voters so all we want if for them to take a look at it," she says. "The opposition and the environmental groups are just descending to status quo. They float around these alternative plans, but look, they are not on the ballot -- R-51 is. The opponents want to go back and have the legislature look at their plan. Well, the legislature is not going to go through that again -- because they were the ones who gave us this plan already."

Ales & Antiques @ Sprague Union District

Sat., Sept. 25, 1-6 p.m.
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