Opinion

Mercer Island, Puget Sound transportation winners

By Reps. Judy Clibborn, Fred Jarrett and Sen. Brian Weinstein

Recognizing our transportation needs and your concerns, the 2005 Legislative session delivered big for transportation in central Puget Sound and for us on Mercer Island.

The session saw our largest commitment to transportation improvements since the Eisenhower administration when we began the process of building the Interstate Highway System. By the mid-1970s most of these new freeways were complete, the energy crisis and hyper-inflation begun and the steady erosion of investment in transportation began.

On Mercer Island, we had the last hurrah: I-90. Not only did I-90 come with improvements over its predecessor, the Sunset Highway (we didn't want to see it, smell it or hear it!), but it came with improved accessibility for Islanders, especially to the west where we retained three on ramps (we lost one eastbound) and gained temporary access to the HOV lanes.

But even as I-90 construction continued, the financing system deteriorated. Financing delayed the start of I-90 and prompted the state to begin using bonds to pay for construction. Innovative in 1980, standard practice in 2005.

Construction of the interstate system used ``pay as you go'' financing, meaning construction didn't start until enough gas tax had been raised. Thus the delay in beginning I-90, as the money wasn't there. And the bonding strategy, borrowing against future revenue rather than raising the gas tax.

The amount we've been investing in transportation declined virtually every year, even with the modest increases in the early 1990s and the ``nickel package'' two years ago. None of these increases ever recaptured the purchasing power of the joint federal-state partnership of the Eisenhower years.

We estimate the cost of replacing the current state road system to be roughly a quarter trillion dollars, and today we invest less than 0.8 percent in the operations, maintenance, preservation and extension of the system. It is just not realistic to think that is enough.

Five years ago, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation estimated a need of over $150 billion. Given an estimate of $50 billion in revenues, they proposed generating an additional $50 billion and saving the second $50 billion by cost cutting and efficiency. They also suggested improved accountability to make sure the $50 billion in savings was be met.

This year the Legislature completed implementation of their recommendations:

? We've increased the flexibility the Department of Transportation (DOT) permitting use of new contracting methods pioneered by the private sector.

? We've added new accountability such as quarterly and comprehensive Web-based performance reports and a stronger Transportation Performance Accountability Commission responsible for auditing DOT.

? We've improved the permitting by moving to functional permits and streamlining permitting on major projects.

? And, we increased the gas tax and weight fees to begin re-investing in our transportation system.

No elected official likes to increase taxes. But the needs of I-405, of Alaskan Way, and of SR 520 (to name just three) cannot be funded with present revenues.

In fact, as the Blue Ribbon Commission realized five years ago, they cannot be funded by state-wide revenues because of the higher costs of urban transportation systems. The Blue Ribbon Commission proposed a regional mechanism called the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) to augment the state funding.

With the funding base from this year's transportation package, the RTID is poised to plan the completion of major projects like SR 520, I-405 and Alaska Way. This plan will likely come to the voters in November of 2006 and, if approved, permit the region to begin re-investing in our mobility.

And as that re-investment is made, we have sought to assure Mercer Island retains access to the rest of the region. State law now requires any funding of changes to the center roadway will be ``contingent upon the development of an access plan that provides equitable and dependable access for I-90 Mercer Island exit and entry.'' As the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement plan for high capacity transit is implemented in the center lanes we, as your representatives in Olympia, will do our best to protect Islanders rights to use whatever HOV lanes that exist in the ultimate configuration.

Clibborn, Jarrett and Weinstein represent the 41st District in the Legislature.

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