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Thursday, November 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gas tax stays, but don't expect big road projects to get going soon

Seattle Times staff reporters

Financing a tunnel


Here are some possible sources of the additional money needed to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel:

$200 million from the Port of Seattle.

Up to $300 million from city utilities for the relocation of water, power and sewer lines carried by the viaduct.

Up to $250 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replace the seawall.

About $200 million from the city's own transportation fund.

Other money from a regional ballot measure, a Local Improvement District along Alaskan Way or tolls charged to drivers.

Source: Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis

The defeat of Initiative 912 unlocks an $8.5 billion tax package and clears the way for hundreds of transportation projects around the state. But don't expect work to start soon on the Alaskan Way Viaduct or other multibillion-dollar projects in the Seattle area.

The state and city are still arguing over whether to rebuild the viaduct or replace it with a tunnel. And even with the gas-tax increase, there's not enough money to replace the Highway 520 floating bridge or fix all the congestion problems on Interstate 405. The central Puget Sound region will eventually have to come up with extra cash.

I-912 would have repealed the 9.5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase passed by the Legislature in April — the largest such increase in state history. On Wednesday, the results stood at 53 percent opposed to repeal and 47 percent in favor.

"I think it was a vote of confidence in us as legislators, and that always makes us feel like we're doing a good job," House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said Wednesday.

With $2 billion dedicated to it, the viaduct is the biggest project funded by the gas tax. The state has said that if the city can't come up with another $1 billion for the tunnel, it will proceed with rebuilding the viaduct.

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said he hasn't given the city a deadline to raise the extra money, but a chunk may come Friday when the Port of Seattle Commission is expected to consider whether to contribute $200 million to the tunnel.

For now, the state will tackle less-daunting transportation issues.

The first project to be completed with the new tax money is an $800,000 bicycle lane on Potato Hill Bridge crossing Interstate 90 in Moses Lake. More projects will follow as the state Department of Transportation gears up after months of delay, waiting for Tuesday's vote.

In some cases, the time lost to I-912 could push projects back a construction season, MacDonald said. "We need a complete internal relook at how to catch up to the lost work in the last five months," he said.

Still, there was enormous relief Wednesday at the transportation department and among state political leaders.

Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman said I-912's failure could make it easier for legislators to take tax votes in the future. "A thoughtful package can meet with success," Sinderman said.

But Democratic leaders were quick to say they don't intend to start raising taxes just because of Tuesday's vote. "I don't think this is a message that says raise taxes at all," Gov. Christine Gregoire said.

"When I got here it was clear to me, as we were trying to pull out of a recession, that the worst thing we could do was raise the B&O [business and occupation] tax, raise property taxes, raise the sales tax. I still believe that's true," she said.

Earlier this year Gregoire signed a $26 billion, two-year general-fund budget that includes nearly $400 million in new taxes — mostly "sin taxes" on cigarettes and liquor.

John Carlson, a conservative radio talk-show host who championed I-912, sees Gregoire as one of the winners in the I-912 vote.

Gregoire pushed lawmakers to approve the gas-tax increase last spring, and many I-912 supporters considered the measure a vote on Gregoire's leadership and Democratic control of the Legislature.

"This definitely helps Gov. Gregoire," Carlson said. "If I-912 had won big time, you would have seen accelerated momentum for changes in the 2006 midterm [elections]."

Gregoire said she never viewed I-912 that way: "I never took it as a referendum on me or my Democratic colleagues."

The governor said she believes voters decided they needed to go with the tax increase, even though they don't like it. The vulnerability of the viaduct and the 520 bridge in an earthquake couldn't be pushed aside, especially after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, she said.

MacDonald agreed. He also thought the recent rockslides on Interstate 90 may have played a role.

I-912 supporters attributed the measure's failure in part to ballot confusion — voters had to mark "yes" to show opposition to the tax — and to a well-funded No on I-912 campaign backed by big business.

Brett Bader, a spokesman for the Yes on 912 campaign, said that, in the end, voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties were so frustrated by traffic congestion they were willing to see if the new tax would help.

"I think the message is this: The voters in the central Puget Sound are exasperated enough with traffic congestion that they're willing to take a pig in the poke."

Despite the vote, Carlson said, people are still concerned about tax increases. And he doubts lawmakers are eager to raise taxes again.

"I think legislators are probably more cautious than ever about raising taxes and pushing higher fees and tax increases," he said. "I think they realize they escaped by the skin of their teeth. In that respect, 912 will have a chastening effect on tax increases."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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