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Thursday, October 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State audit proposes adding tolls, lanes

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — A new state audit says political leaders aren't doing enough to reduce traffic congestion and recommends adding more lanes to the region's highways and possibly using tolls to help deal with the problem.

The $1.7 million audit was released by state Auditor Brian Sonntag's office Wednesday. It is one of a series of transportation audits the Legislature requested.

The audit, done for the state by Portland-based Talbot, Korvola & Warwick, includes more than 20 recommendations. Along with adding lanes and using tolls, the report suggests transportation decisions be made by one agency instead of a multitude.

It also "shows that DOT needs to focus on congestion as a primary goal," Sonntag said.

The audit notes congestion in the region has rapidly gotten worse, to the point that during the typical afternoon rush hour in 2006, 48 percent of traffic on major freeways was moving at under 45 mph.

Acting Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said the report did not identify anything new, and that the agency is already doing or considering many of the points mentioned.

"They are encouraging us to do more," she said. "If we had more money we would."

Hammond disagreed with the report's recommendation that the Department of Transportation should make congestion its top priority.

"We have to worry about first preserving the asset we have in place," she said. "We have over 7,000 miles of highway that we have to preserve and maintain. We believe that preservation and safety are a higher priority of the state's dollars than only congestion."

Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Gov. Christine Gregoire, said although congestion is a concern, safety is the governor's top priority. She noted the audit's recommendations would "cost a lot of money."

State Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, praised the audit, saying it reinforced the need to add highway capacity.

"If we don't expand highway capacity, congestion will worsen and it will hurt our economy and way of life, regardless of whether we expand other transportation modes," he said in a statement.

The audit also talked about the need to have more people telecommute and use car pools and transit.

Sonntag said he has no position on the Nov. 6 ballot measure known as Proposition 1. He would not comment on whether the audit supports the need for such a measure, although the report mentions the proposed work would help deal with congestion.

Prop. 1 would increase sales taxes and car-tab fees to pay for road improvements and to extend light rail in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Much of the work is aimed at relieving congestion.

The work is expected to cost nearly $18 billion in 2006 dollars. If you add inflation, financing, operations, overhead and cash reserves, the entire package is projected to cost around $38 billion by the time all work is finished in 20 years.

Sonntag said the report isn't an "indictment" of DOT, and that the recommendations are mostly policy decisions for state lawmakers.

He said he's not sure if the audit identified anything new for dealing with congestion but added, "It probably puts in one place a lot of the things that have been discussed before."

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, called the audit a "waste of money."

Given that the issues it identified are generally decisions made by the Legislature, "how is that an auditable process?" he asked, adding the money would have been better spent on real transportation projects.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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