Session's end may be near

"Kitsap lawmakers are hopeful the Legislature could approve by tomorrow an $8.8 billion, 10-year state transportation revenue and spending package.Senate Majority Floor Leader Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, said the most current version of the spending package includes good news for Kitsap, since it keeps alive hopes for a passenger-only ferry route from Kingston to downtown Seattle. The plan allocated $55 million over the next decade for the North Ktisap foot-ferry service.We want to sine die (adjourn) on Sunday at the latest, said Sheldon, who took Democratic Long Beach Sen. Sid Snyder's place recently during a negotiation session involving the the four caucuses. Now we are going to present the plans to our caucuses and count up the votes, she said. The question of the next three days is wehther the votes are there among the Democrats and Republicans. Next year is an election year. Nobody wants to get beat up because they voted to raise taxes.Therein lies the rub.The statewide revenue package centers on the first gas tax increase in a decade. The plan would allow for a 9-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to be phased in over the next two years - an additional 5 cents beginning Jan. 1, 2002 and an additional 4 cents beginning the year after. Diesel fuel customers could expect to pay a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase over the next two years if the plan passes.The plan also relies on a 25 percent increase in trucking fees and a 2 percent tax surcharge on the purchase of new and use cars to be phased in over three years.As it is now, the plan and the taxes would not be subject to a public vote in the fall.Sheldon said new these new revenue streams could fuel bonding which, combined with federal money, would allow the state to start fixing its worst choke points and build the highways and facilities required to keep traffic flowing.One glitch, says Sheldon, is that the plan dashes any hopes of expanding the passenger-only ferry service to the Southworth to Seattle route, in addition to the Kingston run.Sheldon, along with Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, has lobbied negotiators and Gov. Gary Locke to fund passenger ferry expansions in the north and south ends of Kitsap.Both the Kingston and Southworth terminals would have foot-ferry service, had Initiative 695 not wiped away the $97 million the 1998 Legislature set aside for the program, Kitsap lawmakers say. Now Sheldon, Rockefeller and fellow Kitsap lawmaker Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, have been pushing for the funding needed for these facilities in the current budget.So long as passenger-only ferry service is secured for Kingston, I will probably vote for the plan, since that will take the pressure off of Bainbridge Island, said Sheldon. But I won't know for sure until I study the bill more closely.Negotiators and Gov. Locke invited both the Senate and House members down to the Capitol on Thursday to be briefed on the transportation plan. Votes could arrive as early as today.The statewide revenue plan is just one piece of the transportation pie.The other slice could arrive in the form of a regional transportation plan involving King, Pierce and Snohomish counties but excluding Kitsap County.The idea is for the tri-county region to raise local taxes, subject to a public vote. In turn, Puget Sound revenues could help fix some of the state's worst traffic problems. The plan doesn't include provisions for ferry funding, county officials say.Predictably, the Kitsap County commissioners were irked that Kitsap was left out of the mix. Board chairwoman Chris Endresen urged Kitsap lawmakers and other legislators to reconsider the current regional transportation plan, and asked them to vote against any plan that excludes Kitsap.If this bill continues to move forward, we ask that Kitsap be given at least the option to join in with our partner counties for seamless transportation around and across Puget Sound, wrote Endresen.The regional transportation bill would also split the Puget Sound Regional Council in half, using the Interstate 5 corridor as the dividing line. As it is now, the regional council administers long-term transportation planning for the Kitsap, Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. Federal money is also divvied up at the level.If it's divided, Pierce, King and Snohomish counties would be split in two, and Kitsap would be married to just a part of the former council.Sen. Sheldon isn't any more pleased with the regional transportation plan than the county commissioners, and doesn't expect to vote in its favor.This split would separate out Mercer Island, Bellevue and other East side areas, said Sheldon, who wants the state to step up and return ferry service to 1999 levels at least. They have a mess, but splitting up the four county region is a huge mistake.Poulsbo Republican Beverly Woods, who has also been involved with marathon negotiations, says the regional bill is not too palatable right now for other reasons.I am not thrilled with the regional plan with the way it sits, said Woods. I think that House Republicans suggested a far simpler plan that used existing planning entities and allowed more cities and counties to opt in or opt out. This one is not as simple and straightforward as it was before, and it puts together a whole new planning group. We're going to take time to reinvent the wheel.Woods says Kitsap is safer if the state is obligated to maintain the health of ferries. Otherwise, she said, Kitsap could take a back seat to Interstate 405-type projects within a regional transportation plan setting. We are also working to put money into the revenue package to bring ferry service back up to 1999 levels, said Woods, who is lobbying to secure new ferry vessels for Bremerton as well.Everybody is feeling the pressure, said Sen. Sheldon. We need to bring these discussions to a conclusion. "

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