DOT chief supports gas tax in Oak Harbor talk

The guy who runs the state Department of Transportation couldn't get a sand truck to help unsnarl a snowy traffic mess at the Mukilteo ferry dock last week.

Using a cellular phone, he discovered the problem stemmed from a DOT agreement with the city of Mukilteo requiring the city to sand the road when needed. But transportation officials were not able to figure out where the Mukilteo public works staff were and why they weren't doing their job.

The traffic crunch got so bad that Mukilteo officials eventually asked the DOT to suspend ferry service for awhile so they could clean up the roads.

State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald told his tale of traffic misadventure to the members of the Skagit-Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization on Nov. 29 in Oak Harbor to illustrate the complexities of the problems that cross his desk.

He also told the tale to illustrate how a breakdown in part of the transportation infrastructure affects the larger system.

"The whole system was broken down," he said. "It's a perfect example of what I'm talking about."

MacDonald was in Oak Harbor talking about the state's multitude of intermingled transportation problems, the transportation department's 20-year transportation plan and the perceived need for a hike in the gas tax.

The 20-year plan identifies several "priority projects" for Whidbey Island. Here's a look at the proposals:

* Construction of a new multimodal terminal in Mukilteo with two piers to allow three 130-car ferries to simultaneously operate at 20-minute intervals. The plan states that the current two-boat wait level of service standard will be exceeded by 2005 if the project isn't competed.

* Two new 110-car shallow draft vessels for the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry.

* Eventual replacement or additional capacity for Deception Pass bridge, which is "a serious transportation bottleneck," according to MacDonald.

Yet, MacDonald said their is no possible way to fund all the projects identified in the plan. He said the gas tax would have to be raised by 85 cents a gallon or more to afford them.

An 8-cent increase, he said, would go a long way toward solving traffic woes, but it would only pay for a portion of the priorities, which he said is more of a "wish list."

The problem, he said, is that state transportation systems have been underfunded for 20 years. Transportation projects are funded mainly by the gas tax, which hasn't increased in real, inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980. At the same time, both growth and wages have increased greatly.

The state gas tax is currently the 23rd highest in the country. Most other states also have income tax to help pay for road construction, MacDonald said.

He said the Legislature needs to pass a gas tax. If not, he said the state's transportation problems will topple the economy.

"It's a problem that has to be solved by the Legislature getting it together," he said. "If they keep walking away and saying it's too hard a problem to solve, we're going to get ourselves into a very tough situation."

But the members of the RTPO -- who are officials from both counties and all the municipalities within -- disagreed on how the gas tax should be spent. Several officials said the money should go toward a list of projects from all over the state so all taxpayers can see a result.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said the county's transportation problems pale in comparison to the massive traffic dilemmas in the greater Seattle area. He said he disagrees with the idea of using the gas tax to fund a large list of projects all over the state.

"If you spread it all over the state, you won't accomplish anything," he said. "I don't know if my constituents agree, but I am willing to participate in the fix."

At the same time, Shelton conceded that all the major transportation problems in Island County are "owned by the state."

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen complained her city always loses when the DOT makes out a list of construction projects. Because of the concurrency law, which mandates there must be a transportation system in place before development, she said the DOT's inability to keep up with needed roadwork in the city has resulted in "a moratorium on development."

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