Voters To Take Unknown Road On Referendum -- Spending Plan Lacks Specifics

OLYMPIA - If voters approve a massive transportation-spending package in November, they will buy $2.4 billion in road repairs and highway improvements, but without knowing exactly where or when the work will take place.

Supporting Referendum 49 requires an element of faith that state politicians will pound out a fair and smart way to spend the new pot of transportation cash.

There are two lists of proposed transportation projects from the last legislative session and one in the works at the Department of Transportation (DOT). Each cites about 250 projects - ranging from adding a bicycle lane in Bellevue to building a highway interchange in Issaquah.

But the lists are not identical, and there are no approved projects for voters to contemplate. If the measure passes, a final six-year, $2.4 billion project list wouldn't be crafted for months, and likely would be grist for fierce wrangling as lawmakers scramble to secure projects for their own districts.

Although project specifics will not be on the ballot, voters will know that the measure authorizes $1.9 billion in bond debt and cuts the annual car tax by $30 a vehicle - more for some newer cars. Some other components of the plan are clear, too, such as a shift in vehicle-tax revenue from the state general fund to a specified roads account, and subsequent increases in state spending on local police and distressed counties.

For the most part, however, voters will find themselves in an unusual position. Legislators usually decide how much to spend on particular construction projects. When voters are asked to finance a capital project, it's usually for something they can visualize - like a sports stadium - not for generic infrastructure improvements.

The lack of specifics is one of many aspects about Referendum 49 panned by its opponents, which include children's advocacy groups, elderly groups and teachers unions. They fear the plan - and the 25 years of debt it creates - will divert public money away from education, health care and state parks.

Proponents say that won't be a problem, that the diverted money could be replaced with expanding revenue or by tapping the state's budget surplus.

The Republican brainchild is a partisan lightning rod. Even Democrats who stand to see a dramatic infusion of transportation dollars into their districts adamantly oppose it; they fear it jeopardizes other state services. And even Republicans whose districts would likely see little money swear by it as the best short-term solution.

Nobody disputes that the state's transportation problems are enormous. Washington's population has overgrown its roads so fast - particularly in the Puget Sound area - that the state's ballooning transportation needs are now estimated at $40 billion - what it would cost to build 80 new Seahawk stadiums.

The Puget Sound Regional Council rattles off the daily consequences. The Seattle area has the fourth-worst congestion in the nation. Central Puget Sound residents lose $740 per capita a year in wasted time and wasted fuel. It takes as long to truck apples from Issaquah to Seattle as it does from Wenatchee to Issaquah.

To illustrate how bad it might get, DOT Secretary Sid Morrison pulls out a map of the state's highways that charts roadway congestion 20 years from now. The map forecasts Puget Sound-level snarls extending the entire Interstate 5 corridor, from Canada to Oregon, and routine holiday-level jams cluttering such outposts as Blewett Pass, Aberdeen and Chewelah, Stevens County.

`A world of hurt'

"The 20-year outlook is frightening," Morrison said. "We're in a world of hurt."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, didn't originally favor Referendum 49, but now worries that if voters reject it, the Legislature will delay dealing with the crisis. "If we don't address the problem, it could lead to damaging our economy," Prince said.

Even with Referendum 49 revenue - which would boost spending on road improvements by 34 percent - the state would just barely exceed maintenance needs for the next six years, according to a DOT analysis.

So what exactly would it do?

There is no consensus. For example, the governor's and the House's project lists from the last legislative session share many of the same goals. These include constructing high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes along I-5 between Tukwila and Fife, a $105.7 million venture, and creating a six-lane, $45.5 million interchange in Vancouver.

But there are striking differences, too.

How priority list is formed

Prioritizing road projects in Washington is designed to be as nonpolitical as possible. It begins at the local level, with regional committees weighing the needs and passing their priorities along to the state.

The DOT then uses its own cost-benefit studies to determine which projects are most worthy of state spending. That priority list is then passed to the governor, who tweaks it slightly with his own preferences. The Legislature does the same. Both camps sign off on the final list, and the available funding is authorized.

But many Republican and Democratic legislators concede last year was a low-water mark in bipartisan transportation planning. The Republican-controlled Legislature refused to consider Locke's gas-tax proposal, then created its own alternative, tax-free plan that bypassed a likely Locke veto en route to the November ballot.

Any final list of projects could be affected by who controls the Senate next year. The Democrats need to gain just two seats in November to become the majority party in that chamber. If they succeed, the new majority leader would likely be Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach.

Only five of the state's 49 legislative districts received less transportation spending in the House proposal last session than Snyder's district. The only projects slated for his Southwestern Washington area were a $300,000 interchange-design study and $464,000 to finish work on another project.

"I think it was put together to garner votes," Snyder said of the House list. "They didn't get any (votes from my district). Likewise we didn't get anything."

Snyder said highway funding had been a bipartisan effort for years. "Now it's becoming extremely political."

Sen. James West, R-Spokane, one of the referendum's bigger backers, believes the prioritizing of projects can be done with minimal politicking.

The Ways and Means chairman said it is his preference that a final list closely follow the advice of the state Transportation Commission, which oversees DOT. "It's a nonpolitical body that can allocate the money based on objective criteria, not political clout," he said.

Rep. Karen Schmidt, chairwoman of the House transportation committee, said she wishes the committee's project list had been attached to the referendum so people could see what they are voting on.

The Bainbridge Island Republican says she intends to roll out the same project list next session as "our starting point" if the initiative fails.

She calls it "absolute nonsense" that her committee's list was designed to garner votes. "What we were doing in the House was very bipartisan," she said.

Rep. Sandy Romero, D-Olympia, said it is unrealistic to think that there wouldn't be a long ugly war over how best to spend the money.

Romero, who sits on the House transportation committee, said she's already seen red-faced battles between legislators over which projects deserve to be on the list. "I've seen people throw pencils over this," she said. "Luckily, there wasn't anything else around to throw."

Jim Lynch's phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is: ------------------------------- Where roads would go

The list of transportation projects to be financed by Referendum 49 remains unclear, but is expected to be similar to one produced earlier this year by the House transportation committee.

That list indicates a majority of the proposed $2.4 billion worth of projects would be in the Puget Sound area and along the Interstate 5 corridor. Here is a breakdown by percentage of the cost of the proposals:

King County: 27.3 percent

Snohomish County: 20.5 percent

Pierce County: 20.2 percent

Clark County: 7.2 percent

Central and Eastern Washington combined: 9.9 percent.

These percentages are approximations. Some spending has unspecified locations, and some projects overlap counties.

Governor's list differs

The House project list differs from Gov. Gary Locke's proposed project list in some dramatic ways. Examples:

-- The House would spend $195 million to improve access from I-5 to Highway 16. Locke's list includes $20 million for high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes in that area.

-- The House includes $70 million to expand HOV lanes south of Everett. The governor includes $700,000 toward that goal.