Referendum 51 can’t do what it’s supposed to

Any idea that offends observers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, while relying for its support on the uncommitted, apathetic and easily led center, is probably one based on flawed reasoning in the first place.

Increasingly, it appears the state’s much-ballyhooed transportation plan, Referendum 51, fits that description.

Environmental activists on the left and fiscal conservatives on the right both oppose the measure — which voters will be asked to approve on the November ballot — and for the same reason. Namely, both are angered that around 85 percent of the $7.7 billion to be raised through higher gas taxes will be used to construct roads, while 15 percent will be used to push “transportation alternatives,” such as mass transit, HOV lanes, carpools, and trip-reduction schemes.

For liberals, 15 percent isn’t near enough and the funding formula simply pours billions into what they’re already convinced doesn’t work, amounting to a recipe for more sprawl, more pollution, and more congestion.

Conservatives, meanwhile, insist 15 percent is far too much when you realize that only 5 to 7 percent of commuters rely on anything other than their own automobiles. Rather than wasting money trying to persuade people to change their current lifestyles, they argue, the state should adopt a plan that embraces reality instead of social engineering.

Under normal circumstances, striking a compromise between two such irreconcilable points of view might be the wise and practical course to take. In the case of Referendum 51, however, in attempting to mollify as many potential supporters as possible by marginalizing all but those on either political extreme the lawmakers have concocted a bill that stands for nothing and, consequently, won’t fix the problem it’s designed to fix.

Among the other problems with R-51:

n The $7.7 billion is only a downpayment on the total transportation fix. By the Washington Department of Transporta-tion’s own estimates, a total of at least $35 to $38 billion will be needed to complete the projects identified by this referendum. The remaining three-quarters of the funding will have to be obtained later — and taxpayers know from whom.

n Only $3 billion of the referendum’s total will be raised from gas taxes. The rest will come from bond sales — bonds that will stretch over 25 years, for roads that will last an average of 10 to 12 years. A decade from now, when the new roads will need to be resurfaced or repaired, taxpayers will still owe $4.1 billion of the $4.7 in bonds.

n The plan unfairly benefits urban areas, primarily in King County, at the expense of suburban and rural ones. Five years from now commuters in Kitsap County, for example, could be paying higher gas taxes to help fund improvements to SR-405 and the Alaska Way Viaduct while getting no help from King County residents to pay for tolls over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

n To throw more money into any project without first reforming the state’s hopelessly bloated transportation system is to reward those who created the problem in the first place. Two years ago, the governor’s hand-picked Blue-Ribbon Transportation Commission identified 468 separate state agencies and offices responsible for some aspect of transportation policy in Washington, many serving duplicative or even contradictory roles. Despite assurances from the governor to the contrary, no overhaul of the transportation system was even contemplated, let alone attempted. We’re simply asked to provide more money on the assurance they’ll do better next time.

Make no mistake, Washington’s current transportation system is in dire shape and getting worse. But what’s needed is a plan that actually makes improvements rather than subsidizing our current failures.

Referendum 51, sadly, isn’t that plan.

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