Transportation called a legislative priority

Voters concerned about getting around in Western Washington, salmon fishing, and state trust land funds got the chance to ask questions face-to-face with Whidbey Island's legislators Wednesday.

In a post-legislative session forum sponsored by the Washington Alliance for Voter Education, or WEAVE, at South Whidbey High School, Reps. Kelly Barlean and Barry Sehlin were primarily focused on transportation issues -- which was expected, since Gov. Gary Locke unveiled his transportation plan for the next biennium earlier in the day. Though the state put billions into its roads and other transportation systems during its last session and plans to pledge more money during next year's budget planning, both representatives said they don't know what will happen if the state cannot raise its gas tax.

"We cannot continue to allow ourselves to be strangled by our infrastructure," said Sehlin, an Oak Harbor Republican.

Sehlin said it is likely both parties will likely push to raise the state's 23 cents-per-gallon gas tax during the next two years to raise more money for road building and repair and mass transit. But getting the support for the tax in the Legislature and among state voters will be difficult. Because the largest part of the money would go to the Puget Sound region, Sehlin said legislators from an economically depressed Eastern Washington may vote against a gas tax measure.

Even if a gas tax does get the votes it needs in the legislature, Sehlin said it will probably have to go out for a vote -- if legislators don't want it immediately repealed by a voter initiative.

Barlean said he knows who will lead the opposition.

"It's not too hard for Tim Eyman to get 98,000 signatures and get it on the ballot," he said.

Dean Enell of Clinton pressed the two legislators for their thoughts on the future of transportation in Western Washington. Barlean said he recently saw an idea for a monorail that had some potential for relieving traffic on I-5.

"Clearly we need some sort of mass transit down the I-5 corridor," he said.

While that may be so, Sehlin said, such a system may never get the support it needs from the legislature or the voters.

"The will is fairly limited," he said.

Others at the meeting had their own opinions. Island County Commissioner MIke Shelton, who grew up in Eastern Washington, said it would be foolish of the people there to oppose transportation improvements in Western Washington.

"The (transportation) system where I was raised is not broke like the one where I live," he said.

Clinton resident Rufus Rose proposed another solution to the state's transportation problem. He said those who use public ferries, roads, buses, and trains should pay more.

"I don't understand why we don't pay the real cost of riding the ferry," he said.

Sehlin responded by saying the state's transportation system benefits all state residents not just in terms of travelling convenience, but economically. Subsidizing the system through taxes ensures a good economy, he said.

On a subject that directly affects South Whidbey, Barlean said this year's capital budget, which will fund a 30-year logging prohibition on hundreds of acres of state trust land near Goss Lake, will be implemented in full after a long holdup in the governor's office. The cutting stay was purchased through the state's trust land transfer program, a program Sehlin called a fiscal "shell game" that essentially trades less-productive state forestry lands for those with potential to generate income for the state's schools.

The Goss Lake transfer, he said, is a good move, considering the land's tree harvest potential.

"The odds are that it's never going to be harvested anyway," he said.

Also a local concern was a new effort by the state to establish several marine preserves around Whidbey Island. Administered by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the preserves would halt most fish harvests in the Scatchet Head area, at Fort Casey State Park, and at Admirility Head. While Barlean said he supported the measure based on the small amount of information he had about it, Sehlin said he wants to see the program produce results before it is expanded.

Others on hand for the discussion included Len Barson, a government relations professional with the Nature Conservancy, and discussion moderator Jennifer Lail.

Wednesday's event was part of WEAVE's "Meet Your Elected Official" series. Legislators attended three other similar sessions in Spokane County and in King County this month.

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