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What a difference a nickel can make

By Dean Lookingbill
For the Vancouver (WA.) Columbian

In a word, the 2004 transportation forecast for our region, our state is WOW! What a difference one Washington state legislative session can make: from $0 to $4.2 billion in 105 days!

Congratulations to the Washington State Legislature, the governor, local elected officials, community leaders, business leaders and citizens who helped support the "Nickel Package," which raised the state gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon.

As a result, our Clark County region is in the process of investing more than $210 million on state highways and freight-rail improvements. This investment will make significant improvements on Interstate 5 at 134th Street, and 219th Street; on Interstate 205 at Mill Plain Boulevard; on state Highway 500 at 112th Avenue; on state Highway 502; and at the new 39th Street crossing over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks.

The $210 million spells J-O-B-S and is a green light for our economy.

What lies ahead for 2004? Surely the glow of $4.2 billion cannot dim in one year.

I know that our regional Washington State Department of Transportation office will be busy delivering the nickel projects.

We can already see the use of the "nickel" funds as WSDOT began construction to widen I-5 between 99th and 134th streets and to build a new interchange on state Highway 500 at 112th Avenue.

The momentum that has started in 2003 to invest in our region's transportation infrastructure will continue into 2004.

However, the first nickel has been spent and its list of projects has been put into law. While that is good, our region still faces significant transportation challenges.

Five cents makes a difference, but it doesn't meet all of our region's transportation needs.

A huge decision lies ahead on what to do to improve the I-5 southbound Columbia River bottleneck.

We also have unmet state highway capacity improvement needs that are critical to addressing pressing traffic congestion problems on I-5, I-205 and Highways 14 and 502 and 503.

These state highway needs are in addition to a host of local street arterial improvements that are being boldly discussed by the city of Vancouver and are being quietly discussed by nearly all other local governments.

C-TRAN changes?
This will be a defining year for C-TRAN. In early 2004, C-TRAN will complete its 20-Year Transit Development Plan.
Remember Initiative 695? While many celebrated the 1999 repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax, C-TRAN experienced a 40 percent loss in transit operating revenues, and since then C-TRAN has maintained service levels by drawing on its reserve funds.

Money that was saved to pay for major capital expenses such as new buses, Park & Rides and improvements to transit centers is now being spent on day-to-day operations. At the current rate of spending, C-TRAN will exhaust its available reserves in 2005.

Because of our slowed economy, a high priority has been placed on new economic development and job creation. Yet at the same time, growth brings with it increased levels of traffic congestion.

Our region's limited transportation funding sets up a difficult trade-off between enticing new development and paying for its transportation impacts.

Financing shift
I believe that a fundamental shift in financing regional transportation improvements has occurred from what was once a state and federal transportation-funding responsibility to a shared responsibility that now includes local governments.

If our region is to meet its transportation needs, a higher level of transportation system investment is needed at the local and regional level. One of the key regional transportation issues to address in 2004 is how to respond to this need.

The flashing neon message scrolling across my 2004 crystal ball reads, "Build on your success." This means now is the time to list and prioritize the next set of our region's most critical transportation projects.

We must take a moment to identify the new transportation revenues that are critical to our region's future. In addition to the response of local governments, a citizen-led effort is being organized to inform and educate citizens on how to do just that.

Starting this month, the Transportation Priorities II Project (TPP II) will be asking for your participation. If you want to know more, go to its Web site at

So given the message in my crystal ball, "Build on your success," my watch list of transportation actions in 2004 includes the following: new legislative authority for cities to levy a street utility, new legislative authority to allow a region the authority to raise transportation revenues, a possible ballot measure to raise transit revenues, and the continued dialog about replacing the Interstate 5 bridge.

Lets build on the success of the statewide $4.2 billion "Nickel" package of projects by completing these projects and by working together to identify funding for the next set of our region's transportation system needs.