Locke's 'solution' would make the problem worse

Let’s say your car broke down and you took it to a mechanic to be repaired. The mechanic tells you the transmission is shot and charges you $1,000 to fix it. Only he doesn’t fix it. But he keeps your car for a year, spends your $1,000 to install a hot tub in his garage, and when you ask when he’s going to finish the job he informs you it’s going to take another $1,000 — in advance, with no guarantee things will be any different the next time around.

Most likely, you’d laugh in the mechanic’s face, and then pay a visit to your lawyer.

Now substitute the words “state transportation system” for “car,” “Gary Locke” for “mechanic,” and “$8.5 billion” for “$1,000” in the above scenario and you get an idea of just how audacious was the plan the governor unveiled last week to fix our collective transmissions.

Among Locke’s suggestions for funding a massive series of road construction projects:

n a 9-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to be phased in over three years — on top of some of the highest gas taxes in the nation already;

n a 1.5 percent sales surtax on new and used cars;

n a 20 percent surcharge on gross weight fees for commercial trucks; and,

n a 3-cent-per gallon surcharge on diesel fuel and a higher gross weight fee on motor homes.

The governor also encouraged consideration of regional transportation solutions, which would allow a public vote in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties on an additional $50-per-car registration fee, a one-quarter percent sales tax hike and a one-quarter percent surtax on car sales.

Nowhere in his vision did Locke address the fact that he specifically promised just last year to put any transportation plan to a vote of the people, and that any raise in taxes or fees would have to be tied to a thorough overhaul of the state’s bloated, inefficient transportation system.

Instead, the governor baldly asserts the problem has gotten so bad there’s no longer enough time to do the job right or hold him to his promises. Never mind that there wouldn’t be a problem at all if not for the dithering of the same bureaucratic black hole into which Locke now demands we pitch another $8.5 billion.

According to the governor’s hand-picked Blue Ribbon Commission, no fewer than 450 separate state offices and agencies have a role in shaping Washington’s transportation policies. To feed this paper-churning beast, the state already collects 23 cents a gallon in gas taxes — much of which is siphoned off to pay for the social programs so near and dear to Locke’s heart.

No doubt this explains why only something like 10 miles of new roads have been constructed at state expense in the past two decades.

Locke proposed a similar smash-and-grab scheme to fund transportation last summer, but his plan went nowhere in the Legislature. This prompted him to moan about the Republicans, whose crime, apparently, was trying to hold the governor to his word and bring some order to the chaos instead of simply throwing more money at the problem.

Locke hopes for better luck next month, now that the Democrats have secured a one-seat advantage in the state Legislature. What may yet thwart his plan is the reality that, in an election year, not even members of his own party are anxious to stand before the voters and admit they supported something this preposterous.

Let’s hope so. There’s no question the state’s transportation system is in need of a fix that will be neither easy nor cheap to implement. But the solution will be found just that much sooner if the process starts out with responsible, even-handed leadership from a governor willing to keep his promises.

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