Puget Sound can be healed without higher taxes

The fanfare around the recent unveiling of the much anticipated Action Agenda by the Puget Sound Partnership was reminiscent of an art showing.

Partnership advocates used broad strokes to paint a worrisome picture regarding the waters of the Puget Sound.

The Agenda released by the Partnership, the state’s lead agency charged with restoring the health of the Puget Sound, is meant to be the roadmap to a healthier Puget Sound by prioritizing cleanup and improvement projects.

As with any artist, the Partnership carefully chose colors that when splashed on the Agenda’s canvas, would explain their vision of what is wrong with the Sound.

The artistic strokes of the Partnership include recent headlines of starving resident Orca whales, a study that claims 52 million pounds of untreated pollutants entering the Sound annually and a promise that our economy will benefit from “green-collar jobs” created by the Agenda.

During the 2009-11 biennium the Partnership will seek between $200 and $300 million from taxpayers to fund new action items identified in the Agenda.

In addition, it appears that the partnership will explore additional funding, such as asking the legislature for the authority to create a local taxing district.

However, before the Partnership drastically increases the tax burden of Puget Sound residents, it should consider the following three policies that will provide savings to the taxpayer and provide benefits for the environment.

First, restore hundreds of miles of salmon habitat by replacing obstructed culverts on state roads. Research has shown that over 2,500 miles of salmon habitat is blocked by more than 1,600 culverts which are too narrow to allow fish further upstream.

At a cost of $10 million per year the state could open 500 miles of new habitat.

In addition there are other benefits to fixing culverts, including improved water quality and decreased localized flooding.

While enlarging culverts does not garner the same media and political attention as the Partnership’s Agenda goals, this simple act has been demonstrated as a cost-effective way to improve salmon habitat, a goal the Orcas can appreciate.

Second, the Partnership must remove cookie-cutter restrictions that prevent the application of low-impact development techniques.

Low-impact standards utilize new techniques to deal with stormwater in ways that avoid putting pollutants into the environment.

For the past several years the state, through the Puget Sound Partnership, has being leading the charge to stop negative impacts of development on the environment.

Millions of dollars have been spent at all levels of government to regulate development by using low-impact techniques.

Unfortunately, the state-led process has not been successful. Local jurisdictions have been slow to adopt restrictive regulations, in part because many of the low-impact techniques, like narrow roads and permeable pavement, are unproven and state regulations don’t allow application based on local conditions.

Top-down regulations will not create useful low-impact standards.

Flexibility and voluntary incentives at the local level are much more likely to create effective long-term environmental solutions.

Removing the barriers of bureaucracy that presently exist and allowing local development of practical low-impact guidelines will drastically reduce runoff that carries pollutants to the Sound.

Finally, the Partnership should discard promises of “green-collar jobs.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire has said that the Agenda “will result in the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of green-collar jobs throughout the region.”

To achieve the goal in job creation the plan calls for additional layers of governmental oversight, which will increase the tax burden on state residents.

The artificial creation of jobs will come at the expense of existing employment and is likely to reduce the total number of jobs in the economy at a time when increasing taxes and cutting jobs makes little sense.

Even supporters of the effort scoff at the “green jobs” claim.

When told that the Partnership is selling the Agenda as a job creation tool, the chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee called it “rhetoric.”

The goals of the Puget Sound Partnership are honorable and worthy of continued discussion. But we need to ensure that as the Partnership moves forward they will do so in the most cost-effective and efficient ways, otherwise goals may not be met and taxpayers will once again be left with an overpriced piece of art.

Brandon Houskeeper is a policy analyst with the Washington Policy Center.

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