ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Washington Legislature kills transportation funding bill

By Jane Hadley
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

SEATTLE – Hopes for a new revenue source from the Washington Legislature for a regional transportation package died Thursday (March 11), shifting attention now to the Sound Transit board, which is mulling whether to participate in the package on a November ballot.

Leaders of the three-county Regional Transportation Investment District had asked the Legislature for authority for another 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax in addition the 0.3 percent authority the district already had. They made the request so that they could rely less on the sales tax in putting a multibillion dollar transportation tax before voters.

The Sound Transit board heard a presentation yesterday on how a joint ballot would work and discussed the pros and cons. They are scheduled to make a decision April 8 and will need a two-thirds vote of the 18-member board to pass it. The board is said to be divided and undecided on a course of action.

Seattle leaders have insisted neither they nor voters would support a regional transportation ballot measure that does not include light rail, and most district leaders have concluded after seeing results of polls and focus groups that they need to have more transit in the package than is there without Sound Transit.

Meanwhile, in other action yesterday, Sen. Jim Horn, R- Mercer Island, and Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, agreed on a $112 million supplemental transportation budget yesterday, adjusting the two-year budget passed by lawmakers in 2003. They are the chairs of the transportation committees in each house.

It will fully fund Vashon-Seattle passenger ferries, provide money for freight mobility projects, and accelerate construction of carpool lanes north of Everett so that they can be completed before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. begin.

Also provided for in the supplemental budget is money for a program pushed hard by Gov. Gary Locke to allow people to renew their drivers' licenses online. The investment district's request for more motor-vehicle excise tax authority foundered because the district itself could not agree on whether the tax should be prohibited from being used on light rail, commute trip-reduction programs, or bus operating expenses.

Also failing to win approval were two other district requests. One was that the Legislature clarify the district's authority to impose tolls on a rebuilt Evergreen Point Bridge.

Another was that lawmakers give the district permission to use more than the standard 75 words to present the ballot measure to voters. The district wants to be able to describe the projects in three counties that would be paid for by the taxes.

Regional transportation leaders had varying interpretations of how the failure to achieve its legislative goals would affect the prospects of getting a package on this November's ballot.

No one said it would kill the chances, but King County Council Member Julia Patterson said it would make the district's job much harder. Patterson, who was perhaps most disappointed of anybody at the failure to win the excise tax authority, said the sales tax is regressive and polls show voters don't like using it for transportation.

She predicted three likely scenarios for the district: a November package that is more regressive and smaller than the district has talked about, a November package that relies less on the sales tax and is less regressive but drastically smaller, or no package on the ballot at all for several years.

A drastically smaller package could mean trouble for some state Route 167 projects in Patterson's district.
But King County Councilman Dwight Pelz was less pessimistic.

"I don't think it changes things that much," Pelz said. The additional 0.3 motor-vehicle excise tax would have raised an additional $1 billion Pelz, which could be at least partly made up by a higher vehicle license fee.

Murray said the motor vehicle excise tax is "the most radioactive tax out there" and it wasn't fair to expect legislators to vote for it when the district itself could not agree on it.

Pelz said he doesn't believe the district's package necessarily must be drastically smaller. The district's executive board has talked about a package of up to $14 billion, though King County Executive Ron Sims and representatives of business, labor and environmental groups have said that package is too large.

"The (district) would have to produce a very small package," said Peter Hurley, executive director of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition. "The idea of a $12 billion package is dead."

Sound Transit's main source of revenue is the sales tax and it plans to go to voters in the next couple of years with a new set of transit projects known as Phase 2.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis talked yesterday of a $4 billion to $5 billion district package.

Most agreed yesterday that if Sound Transit does not vote to join the package in November, it would be dead.
Still Pelz, a likely supporter of Sound Transit participation, said, "This is not going to be an easy vote for Sound Transit."

Both Hurley and Aaron Ostrom, executive director of One Thousand Friends of Washington, an environmental group, hinted that Sound Transit should think twice about agreeing to the joint ballot, calling it a "shotgun wedding."

In a joint ballot, Sound Transit would give 0.1 of its remaining 0.5 cents sales tax authority to the Regional Transportation Investment District, which would include projects selected by Sound Transit in the transportation package presented to voters. That would raise an estimated $1.2 billion in King County, $400 million in Pierce and $300 million in Snohomish.

But Sound Transit cannot under its own charter invest in any projects not mentioned in the 1996 Sound Move ballot measure. These are so called Phase 1 projects. Phase 2 is more than a year away. The problem is that it's hard to find remaining Phase 1 projects for Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

The King County money would likely be used on getting Seattle's light rail project to Northgate and to South 200th Street.Because most of the Sound Transit money would go to Seattle's light rail, other areas could swap their unused transit money for Seattle's share of roads money from the investment district, but environmentalists are sharply critical of that approach. "Seattle is not the only place that wants transportation choices," Hurley said.