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Monday, May 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Governor signs gas tax increase, $8.5 billion transportation package

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a package of bills today that will increase the gas tax by 9.5 cents per gallon over four years to pay for $8.5 billion in transportation improvements.

The first gas tax increase, a 3-cent boost, will take effect this July. Before signing the bills into law, Gregoire took a bus tour through the Puget Sound area's rush hour, visiting transportation hot spots in Pierce, Snohomish and King County.

As her bus cruised west on state Route 520, where thousands of commuters idle away the hours every afternoon crossing Lake Washington, Gregoire acknowledged that it's not the best time to raise gas taxes, with gas prices hitting near-record highs.

"So when is a good time?" Gregoire asked. "There isn't. You either do it, or watch the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct pancake, or 520 go down in the next 77-mile-per-hour wind. What the public expects, fundamentally, from government is safety."

Also today, the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual traffic congestion study, which ranked Seattle 20th in the nation for traffic delays. Meanwhile, the nation's average gasoline price has fallen 3 cents a gallon in the past two weeks.

The transportation package will pay for 270 projects around the state. Many of the largest projects are in the Seattle area: $2 billion to begin replacing the viaduct, which is in danger of collapsing in the next earthquake, and $500 million for the aging state Route 520 bridge. Opponents of the package complained that Eastern Washington taxpayers will be footing the bill for Seattle projects.

But Gregoire noted the package includes projects in every corner of the state. When she visited Pullman last Friday, she said, she told local leaders about plans to replace an old bridge.

"There isn't a community I can go to where something isn't being done," Gregoire said.

She also noted that those two megaprojects will be only partly funded by the statewide tax — more local taxes will be needed if the projects are ever going to get built.

The transportation bill and accompanying gas tax passed after an 11th-hour turnaround in the recently concluded legislative session. The package failed in the House the day before the end of the session, but after intense lobbying by Gregoire and the business community, it passed on the last day of the session.

"It didn't come easy," Gregoire said today. "They made a very difficult decision."

Gregoire signed another bill today that won't have the direct consumer impact of the gas tax, but could make a huge difference in the way the state handles transportation issues. The new law makes the transportation secretary report to the governor instead of the transportation commission, and gives the secretary more power.

"It's going to strengthen our ability to bring leadership to the problems," Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said. "We're approaching these issues with a political as well as a technical voice."

Gregoire said the change has been 60 years in the making.

"As long as the governor is going to be blamed for everything that goes wrong with transportation, why not be responsible?" Gregoire said.

Gregoire also signed a cell phone privacy bill today:

— House Bill 1185 prohibits wireless companies from adding their subscribers' cell phone numbers to public phone directories unless they first obtain documented, express permission from the customer. It also bars wireless companies from charging additional fees to customers who choose to keep their cell phone numbers unlisted, and imposes a $50,000 fine for each intentional violation.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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