Initiative 985 says it will address congestion, which is a very tempting idea. It reports that focus groups said congestion is a major problem and we should do something about it. Since transportation funding was starved all during the ’90s in a period of substantial growth in population and in jobs, it is true that we accumulated a congestion deficit. The Transportation Commission recommended every year after 1993 that the legislature find funding to accommodate our growth, but a political philosophy prevailed that there would be no tax increase for any reason, no way, no how.
Obviously, the focus groups were right. We do have a congestion problem, but apparently no one mentioned that the legislature with strong leadership from Gov. Gregoire had approved gas tax increases twice in this decade. In fact, a $15 billion highway construction program was authorized and construction started in 2004. This is the biggest highway program in history and will be largely complete by 2015. The work on expanding I-405 in Bellevue is typical of the projects completed and underway. We are spending about a billion a year, 70 or 80 percent of which will help to relieve congestion. The performance audit that is the alleged basis for the initiative apparently didn’t inquire what is currently being done about congestion so the state was urged to give it a higher priority. It is clear that the state actually has placed a very high priority on relieving congestion.
So the first reason we should vote “NO” on Initiative 985 is that we have already started with very heavy investments that will lessen congestion. There are other reasons. Part of the superficial attraction of the initiative proposal is that we will get its benefits at no cost for us. Free candy. The plan is to transfer 15 percent of automobile sales taxes from the general fund, where all sales taxes go, and put it in a congestion relief fund. That is over $100 million a year, described by the initiative sponsor as a “sliver,” a pretty hefty sliver to be diverted from public education, healthcare or public safety. So this is not a freebee at all. We will give up the present uses of that “sliver” while being told that it costs us nothing. We ought to know by now that free promises just mean we will not be told what the real cost is. We used to run such scam artists out of town.
There are a number of places where opening the HOV lanes to general traffic will greatly increase congestion instead of relieving it. The eastbound 520 HOV lane illustrates the problem. It only works as a substandard lane because it is limited to buses, vanpools and three-person carpools. Opening it to two-person carpools and general traffic will produce chaos of congestion far back up the highway. Three lanes become two at the bridge, which is why the HOV lanes always had restricted access. Traffic management by state fiat doesn’t make much sense.
I do not know what the future for tolling is on I-90. The state treasurer has said that bonds cannot be sold for replacing the 520 bridge unless I-90 is tolled. If the initiative blocks that funding as its sponsor claims, we had better pray that the 520 bridge doesn’t blow away or sink because if it does, I-90 will be the most congested corridor in the state. This initiative is not our friend. Vote NO on 985.
Transportation expert Aubrey Davis is a former mayor of Mercer Island and the retired chairman of the state Transportation Commission.