Record-setting tax plan wraps roads, rail in 1 fragile package

OLYMPIA — It's hard to find a political leader in love with the nearly $18 billion roads-and-transit tax package on the November ballot.

Among the complaints: The plan spreads projects too thinly, doesn't fully address some of the region's most pressing traffic problems and imposes the wrong set of taxes.

Yet most of the leaders want voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to pass the biggest tax package ever placed on the ballot in this state, arguing it does enough good to warrant support.

"I don't think we'll get anything better," House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said. "Everybody wants us to have a plan. This is the plan."

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doesn't want to be "one of these people who makes perfect the enemy of the good."

He supports the measure, which is called Proposition 1, but would rather use tolls to raise the money instead of the sales taxes the ballot measure proposes.

The reality is the regional roads-and-transit plan is a political compromise, said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

It was designed to pass the King, Pierce and Snohomish county councils and get enough support to win in November. Haugen, D-Camano Island, backs the measure, in part because she thinks it's better than doing nothing.

"The thing that disturbs me is that many of these are just money down on projects that are going to cost a whole lot more in the long run," she said.

Even if the measure passes, transportation planners have identified roughly $55 billion worth of future road and transit projects in the region without funding.

Opponents of the plan include folks who don't normally agree on much of anything when it comes to transportation policy.

Transit supporters object to spending so much on roads and freeways, and highway advocates say the package won't lay enough pavement to reduce traffic congestion.

A recent Stuart Elway poll indicates the tax package has a chance, but the political campaigns on both sides are just gearing up. So far, it's a lopsided race. Supporters expect to run a multimillion-dollar campaign. Opponents report about $51,000 in contributions.

The plan would spend about $7 billion, in 2006 dollars, on more than two dozen highway and local road projects, including widening Interstate 405 and improving Mercer Street in Seattle. Almost $1 billion would go toward replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge.

Another $10.8 billion would extend Sound Transit light rail east to Redmond's Overlake area, south to Tacoma and north to 164th Street Southwest in Snohomish County, and enhance existing commuter-rail and regional bus service.

If you add inflation, financing, operations, overhead and cash reserves, the entire package is projected to cost around $38 billion by the time all the projects are finished 20 years from now.

Higher sales taxes and car-tab fees would pay for it all.

If approved, the taxes could last for decades and likely drive transportation policy for at least that long.

If the package fails, some lawmakers say there's a good chance the debate over our traffic problems would restart almost from scratch.

Let locals tax themselves

The roots of the proposal go back at least seven years. That's when a special panel on transportation set up by state lawmakers released recommendations on how to deal with the region's snarled highways.

One idea was to let local residents tax themselves to pay for the bulk of the work. The thinking was there would never be enough support for a massive statewide tax increase to pay for Seattle-area mega projects such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge.

So, in 2002, the Legislature created the Regional Transportation Investment District, which set about developing a three-county roads package.

At the same time, Sound Transit was pursuing a separate effort to expand its light-rail system.

State lawmakers began to worry about taking two big tax proposals to voters in separate ballot measures. Last year they decided to tie the two together, arguing that would increase the odds of passage for both.

From the beginning, officials haggled over what projects to include and exclude, and how much money each should get.

Earlier this year, for example, negotiators dropped the Alaskan Way Viaduct from the package when they decided the project didn't need additional money. The $800 million that had been set aside to help replace the viaduct with a six-lane tunnel was allocated to other projects when the tunnel was rejected.

One of the biggest compromises dealt with a proposed Cross-Base Highway, an east-west route in Pierce County that would link I-5 to Spanaway and the Frederickson industrial area.

Environmental groups hate the idea of building a road across open land. They threatened to oppose the ballot measure unless it was taken out.

Supporters say the highway would alleviate traffic congestion and open up land for development. Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg threatened to oppose the package unless the highway was kept in.

Both sides ultimately agreed to fund some work on existing roads on both ends of the proposed highway. But work on the middle section cannot start until after a mediation process in 2009.

Even if an agreement is reached, the ballot measure doesn't include enough money to complete the highway. More money would have to be found.

Early poll shows support

In an Elway poll in June, 57 percent of voters surveyed backed the ballot measure. The poll also found that the road and transit proposals drew more support together than individually.

Elway said he was struck by the level of support "even though most people thought the costs are high, thought it would not be a significant improvement and thought there are many unknowns about the future."

That suggests, he said, that people are so sick of being stuck in traffic that they'll vote for just about anything.

Another factor that may bode well for the ballot measure is the current lack of well-funded opponents.

Keep Washington Rolling, the political-action committee supporting the ballot measure, has raised more than $800,000 so far, including $200,000 from Microsoft and $75,000 from the Seattle Mariners. The PAC expects to raise several million dollars.

On the other side, lots of groups want to kill the proposal. One group, NoToProp1.Org, has raised about $51,000 and is running radio ads against the package. But apparently none of the organizations have joined forces.

The Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club supports light rail but opposes the package because the organization thinks expanding roads will lead to more traffic and more greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming.

A group called the Eastside Transportation Association contends the tax package spends too much on light rail and not enough on roads.

"I'd say a vote for this package ensures that you're going to be with congestion for the rest of time," said former Republican state Sen. Jim Horn, who heads the group.

Several neighborhood organizations based on the west side of the 520 bridge also oppose the ballot measure, saying it throws money at a new bridge without considering what the neighborhoods want.

As always, campaign money is critical in terms of who wins, said Chris Vance, a GOP consultant and former chairman of the state Republican Party.

"It's really hard when the other side is running TV commercials and all you can do is send out press releases and put up a few yard signs," he said. "If the anti side can raise significant amounts of money and cause enough doubt, they can win."

What happens if it fails?

All the opponents argue that their broader transportation agendas have a better chance of succeeding if the ballot measure loses in November.

Mike O'Brien, chairman of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, says if the tax package fails, light rail would soon be back on the ballot by itself and would pass.

He also says a no vote would force the Legislature to come up with another traffic solution, such as so-called congestion pricing. In other words, use some form of tolls on I-5, I-405 and the two Lake Washington bridges to discourage driving at peak traffic times.

Horn, with the Eastside Transportation Association, says roads would emerge as a winner if the measure fails. "If it's not passed this year, the Legislature will have to step up and address it in some way," he said.

Legislators aren't sure what would happen.

It's possible light rail would reappear on the ballot fairly quickly, but fixing the region's highways is another matter. Legislative leaders predict few people would want to touch the issue in 2008 because it's an election year.

That would push any highway proposal off until 2009, and by then the debate over replacing the Highway 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct — both in danger of collapse during an earthquake — could suck up all the attention and money for years to come.

At the very least, a big question mark would again hang over central Puget Sound's transportation problem.

"If it doesn't pass we'll have to go back and figure things out — and it won't be anything of this scope," said Clibborn, the House Transportation Committee chairwoman.

Haugen, the Senate Transportation Committee chairwoman, said she sees problems no matter what happens in November.

The Legislature has already increased the state gas tax by almost 15 cents a gallon in recent years. That well is tapped out, she says. Yet billions of dollars of work is still needed statewide.

"We're facing some real crises in transportation whether this passes or not," she said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or

Staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this story.

Ramps and lanes would be added to I-405 from Bellevue to Renton. This photo shows the busy highway as it passes through Bellevue. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Almost $1 billion of the $7 billion roads package would go toward replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge. (ELAINE THOMPSON / AP)
More than $10 billlion would go toward extending the light-rail line north, south and east of Seattle. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Proposition 1: The cost to you in new taxes

Sales taxes: The tax would increase one penny per $10 purchase to pay for highway projects and a nickel per $10 purchase to pay for light rail — a total of about $150 a year per household on average.

Car tabs: A new tax would add $80 per $10,000 of vehicle value.

Who pays: Both taxes would be paid by most households in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.