Referendum 49 -- $2.4 Billion In Spending For Roads Approved

Voters gave the state's ailing highways an injection of new money yesterday, approving a $2.4 billion transportation-spending plan to help relieve traffic congestion.

Referendum 49, perhaps the most confusing issue on the ballot, passed easily despite warnings from a coalition of advocates for education, the environment and children that it will steal money from other state services.

The measure authorizes $1.9 billion in new bond debt and raises $600 million more in the next six years for highway maintenance and improvements. It also cuts the annual car tax by an average of $30 and shifts vehicle-tax revenue from the state general fund to a roads account.

Steven Excell, spokesman for the Referendum 49 campaign, said it was the dire straits of Washington's roads, not the tax cut, that won over voters.

"Everywhere I went, there were people screaming about transportation needs and the need to do something now," he said. "They were all complaining about congestion. And they wanted solutions."

Exactly what the new transportation money will buy remains a mystery.

Voting for the initiative required some faith that state legislators will figure out a fair and smart way to spend the cash.

A six-year, $2.4 billion project list will likely not be crafted for months, and is bound to spark political battles as lawmakers try to land projects for their own districts.

Potential projects include spending some $105 million for

high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes along Interstate 5 between Tukwila and Fife, $45.5 million for a six-lane interchange in Vancouver, and $195 million to improve traffic flow between I-5 and the Highway 16 corridor in Tacoma.

The first step will be for the state Transportation Commission to make recommendations to Gov. Gary Locke. The governor will then give a list of about 250 projects to the Legislature, which will modify it. After a final list of projects is approved, the first wave of projects can begin.

Referendum 49 emerged last legislative session after the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to consider Locke's proposal to raise the gas tax. GOP lawmakers created their own alternative. They bypassed a likely Locke veto by putting their tax-free plan on yesterday's ballot.

Opponents, including Locke, called the Republican proposal "credit-card spending at its worst." They warned that paying off the new bond debt could drain the state's anticipated $820 million budget surplus - especially if the economy sours and state revenues decline.

Proponents called such talk unnecessarily gloomy and pitched the initiative as a creative way to start dealing with an estimated $40 billion in needed road projects. Only three U.S. cities have worse traffic congestion than Seattle, according to a recent national study.

Andrew Hysell, campaign director for No on 49, said the ballot measure succeeded because of the way it was worded.

It "looked too good to be true," Hysell said. "It's got a tax cut on the front of it, and if a lot of folks don't know anything else, they're persuaded to vote for it."

Hysell's opposition group was outspent 3-to-1. Proponents raised almost $800,000, according to the latest campaign filings, including big donations from gasoline and construction interests in Texas and Oregon.

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