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Planned and canned: What happens to local transportation projects?
"Dozens of transportation projects went on the chopping block last year when Initiative 695 passed. But with legislators still quarreling over the state budget, no one knows which projects will become casualties.The state Department of Transportation lost a third of its budget to the tax-revolt initiative, which repealed Washington's motor vehicle excise tax and set car tab fees at $30.Of the $1.24 billion deficit in DOT's current two-year budget, $558 million is money motorists would have paid in vehicle excise taxes. The rest--$686 million--was money the state expected to collect by selling bonds approved by voters in Referendum 49.Plans to replace some of this money include the House Republicans' proposal to divert sales taxes on tires and other vehicle-related items to fund transportation.Senate Democrats proposed raising traffic fines for money to run passenger ferries for a year. And both House and Senate Democrats advocated using part of the state surplus to pay for transportation projects.I-695 was a double-whammy for transportation because the vehicle tax was also supposed to repay Referendum 49 bonds. Without that stable income stream, the bonds can't be sold. R-49 would have provided $2.4 billion for transportation projects over six years.So what happens to projects that were planned and then canned? DOT spokeswoman Ann Briggs answered, They go up on the shelf until we have the money to pay for construction.There are three stages in planning and funding a project: Preliminary engineering, construction and right-of-way acquisition (buying the land on which a project will be built).Preliminary engineering is a cost we would have incurred anyway if a project is shelved, Briggs said, so the money spent on preliminary engineering is not wasted.The cost of preliminary engineering varies widely, depending on the project's complexity. If a project is shelved, Briggs said it's possible to resurrect the project as long as the surrounding area hasn't changed much since the original engineering was done.They may have to reapply for environmental permits or reassess the area if it's grown, Briggs added. They may have to go back and revise the plan, but I wouldn't call it (preliminary engineering) money wasted by any means. It's a necessary step.There are two groups of transportation projects on the chopping block. Throughout the current legislative session in Olympia, lawmakers have indicated that the projects enabled by Referendum 49 are in the most precarious position.Projects that were supposed to get money straight from vehicle taxes are also in jeopardy, and DOT expects to lose $417 million planned for ferry construction and operations, public transportation, rail and highways.The legislative session ended officially at midnight Thursday, but legislators were expected to still be miles apart in agreeing on a budget. A special session loomed. Although the Democrat-dominated Senate passed its budget on to the House, the House is split 49-49 between the parties and has yet to come up with a unified House budget proposal.Until there is agreement in Olympia, commuters will remain in suspense--not knowing whether the project near and dear to them will be canned or completed."