Thursday, November 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Election 2007

520 a priority as officials regroup after election

Seattle Times transportation reporter

The voters' rejection of Proposition 1, instead of bringing transportation efforts to a standstill, has motivated politicians to rally around a new Highway 520 bridge.

Gov. Christine Gregoire said Wednesday she has ordered state departments to develop a new funding plan, and that she'll begin talks on Friday with other officials.

The Roads & Transit regional ballot measure would have provided $1.1 billion toward replacing the aging bridge across Lake Washington, to cover about one-fourth the cost. Campaign mailers showed whitecaps pounding the concrete pontoons, but the ominous image didn't produce a win.

"I couldn't believe the day after they voted down 520, that they announced it was the anniversary of Galloping Gertie," said Gregoire, interviewed in Washington, D.C. She doesn't want a bridge collapse on her hands like the one on Nov. 7, 1940, when the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge — known to undulate from the weight of cars — twisted apart in a windstorm.

A day after the polls closed, politicians and activists were thinking about how to fill the void.

Among the options:

Tackle just the Highway 520 bridge.

One possibility is to put a tax on the ballot just for the bridge, to supplement funding from tolls and gas taxes, said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who supported Proposition 1.

She said a bridge tax might fare better than the complex Proposition 1, which would have spent $38 billion over 20 years for light rail to Overlake, Tacoma and Lynnwood; 186 miles of new road lanes; and other projects.

"I just wonder if people wouldn't vote on one thing. Maybe that's what they wanted in the first place," Clibborn said.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said it makes sense to tackle Highway 520 before addressing broader transportation issues. "Completing projects such as the 520 bridge and showing we can do it and do it right is important," he said.

Despite the defeat, the state can still build pontoons off-site, in Grays Harbor or another port area, for a new six-lane bridge. Gregoire said construction on the lake needs to start by 2012.

Take Sound Transit to the ballot alone.

With this week's defeat of the joint roads-and-transit plan, Sound Transit could put its own plan on next year's ballot in urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. The Legislature had forced roads and transit to be linked for this year.

"I think the earliest it could be is 2009," said transit-board Chairman John Ladenburg. But that's an election off-year, when spending measures tend to fare poorly because of low voter turnout, he said.

Joni Earl, Sound Transit's chief executive officer, said next year's ballot is doable, but Ladenburg suspects the Legislature might move to prevent that, to keep the focus on other transportation matters.

Another option is to wait until after the first rail line from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opens two years from now. Presumably, the sight of rolling trains would boost voter support.

The Sierra Club, which opposed new road lanes, has promised to help craft a greener, transit-heavy alternative. Members said this is the first time in U.S. history that global warming played a major role in debate over a local public-works measure, a lesson for future campaigns.

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata suggests a smaller plan, to advance the light-rail system to Northgate.

Any follow-up plan by Sound Transit could be threatened by a looming proposal to strip its power, and that of other agencies. In a report to the Legislature this year, a commission led by former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and telecommunications billionaire John Stanton suggested putting all transportation and land-use planning under control of a new, partly elected regional superboard.

Let counties splinter off.

Snohomish County ought to try its own countywide roads tax, to build the same projects that just lost, said County Councilmember Gary Nelson, R-Edmonds. County Executive Aaron Reardon, a Democrat, will begin a review of road projects to see what might be put on a referendum.

The Legislature has given counties power to form transportation-improvement districts with authority to charge car-tab fees, a small sales tax and tolls.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, R-Maple Valley, said smaller, county-only measures could defuse "some of the price-tag issues" that spook voters in a regional plan.

Some Pierce County residents want to join Thurston and Kitsap counties in a roads alliance, said Ladenburg, who is Pierce County executive. Ladenburg said he isn't convinced that a South Sound plan is the right move, because the King and Pierce county economies are so strongly linked.

Keep roads and transit together.

State lawmakers combined the road and transit projects on the ballot in hopes of keeping environmentalists and roads fans from undermining each other, but it didn't produce a win. Still, a team of politicians, labor unions, some environmental groups and big businesses endorsed the compromise deal.

Their loss doesn't prove that separate plans would fare better.

"There is a real belief in the need to keep the coalition together, not devolve into roads versus transit, Democrats versus Republicans, one county versus another," said Jon Scholes, aide to Metropolitan King County Councilmember Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, the leading political speaker for the "pro" side.

Look at tolls.

With billions in tax dollars denied them Tuesday, politicians may be forced to consider "congestion pricing" to discourage so-called nonessential trips while raising money for new projects. Tolls would go up and down based on traffic volume. Many motorists may resent paying a toll, after paying one of the nation's highest gasoline taxes.

"That's a very long-term issue. It's really not happening anywhere in America right now," Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said about congestion pricing. "People are talking about it."

The federal government has offered a grant to try such tolls on the old Highway 520 bridge, an idea Haugen says would get a closer look in light of Proposition 1's defeat.

The Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center, a Seattle transportation think tank, endorsed regional tolling in a new position paper, and King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, D-Seattle, said he'd support an advisory vote on congestion pricing.

Staff reporters Sharon Pian Chan, Keith Ervin, Christopher Schwarzen and Andrew Garber and Alicia Mundy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!