Gas tax increase might aid ferries

A statewide ballot measure seeking to raise gas tax 9 cents a gallon has money earmarked for transportation improvements directly impacting Island County.

Referendum 51, which will be on the Nov. 5 state ballot, could pay to add a third boat to the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry run and, if passed, secure funding for safety improvements to the "high accident corridor" on Highway 20 in the Burlington area, adding a new lane in each direction between Fredonia and Interstate 5.

The initiative -- which has received endorsements from such organizations as the state councils of firefighters, police and sheriffs -- would fund a specific list of safety and traffic projects throughout the state, with a focus on unsafe roads and bridges, gridlock and additional money for public transportation

Supporters of the measure argue the referendum, by channeling tax revenues directly into specific transportation projects, will hold government accountable to taxpayers and make sure the money is spent properly and gives concrete results.

However, some people question the exact nature of those results. Clinton resident Marianne Edain, a member of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said that creating more lanes on a highway "never alleviates congestion" and doesn't tackle the problem of reducing the amount of cars on the road. Edain is especially critical of such large-scale projects as the proposed expansion of Interstate 405 and the I-5 corridor in King County, which she argued would merely make more room for more cars.

"Spending gazillions of tax dollars to increase that infrastructure strikes me as a backwards way of doing things," Edain said Thursday.

Edain said she supports raising gas prices to more realistically reflect its actual cost, though she believes the money should be used to for more efficient public transportation such as rail systems and fuel-efficient buses.

The transportation projects listed under R-51 are broken down by major regions throughout the state. Transportation improvements to the Island County region are listed under the referendum's "Bellingham North" proposal. Most of the projects that would impact traffic on the island have to do with upgrades to the state's ferry system. A three-tiered proposal includes building four new auto-passenger vessels by 2009, maintaining existing vessels, maintenance facilities and terminals, and relocating the Mukilteo terminal. Such a move would allow construction of a second slip, making room for a third boat on the Clinton-Mukilteo run.

One local elected official who said he supports R-51 is Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton. He said it is the state's ongoing traffic crisis, especially in the gridlocked Seattle-Everett area, that necessitates the tax hike.

"Voting new taxes is always a difficult issue," Shelton said Wednesday. "However, if we are going to continue to have a vital economy in the state of Washington, that's not going to happen unless we do something about our transportation problem."

Shelton said the expansion of the Clinton ferry terminal, which is currently under construction, will be of no use unless it is matched in Mukilteo.

Supporters of the measure tout its attention to mass transit. R-51 press secretary Lily Eng said Wednesday that the referendum funding places high priority on public transportation, especially the state ferry system.

"There's a huge chunk going to ferries," Eng said. "I know how the Island County community really relies on the ferry system."

Eng revamping the ferry system has been a long time coming. Some of the ferries themselves, she said, were built over 70 years ago, "during Calvin Coolidge's presidency."

Going from congestion on the south end of Whidbey Island to the dangers just northeast of Deception Pass, Shelton said improvements to Highway 20 near Burlington are "critically important." An additional lane would likely relieve some of the congestion during busy hours and cut down on the high rate of traffic accidents.

"it's a very dangerous and inadequate piece of road," Shelton said.

Eng and Shelton said asking voters to support a tax hike is always a tough sell, but especially so in the state's current political climate. Citizen-sponsored initiatives such as I-737 and I-695 -- which sought to limit property and license excise fees respectively -- have generated significant support at the polls: They've also sent elected officials scrambling for funding in the face of withering revenues, sometimes just to support essential public programs.

Eng said the way R-51 is set up should help overcome voters' reluctance to support a tax increase, since all revenue generated from the gas tax will go directly into the state's transportation account. She said the referendum, if it passes, will be subject to mandatory quarterly audits, with a stringent tracking system in place that lets folks know how the money is being spent as well as how the list of projects is progressing.

"That's one of the important components of the measure," Eng said. "We're also talking about accountability, so taxpayers know where the money is going."

Shelton noted as well that R-51 draws a direct line from the generation of revenue to the completion of specific transportation projects, which may alleviate the public's concern about revenues disappearing into some bureaucratic black hole.

"The question in many people's minds is whether the state of Washington is using wisely the money that they already collect," Shelton said. "Our population continues to grow and we just haven't updated our transportation infrastructure."

Edain, however, said she thinks any updating of the state's transportation infrastructure should begin with a serious look at forms of transportation beyond individual automobiles.

"By and large the Department of Transportation is asking the wrong questions," she said. "Their question appears to be how can we move more autos more efficiently. The question ought to be how can we move people and goods more efficiently."

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