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Thursday, January 31, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill adds no relief, just a few words, to road congestion

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Amid the roughly 1,600 bills introduced in the state Legislature so far is a measure designed to do almost nothing — except to pre-empt GOP attacks against Democrats about traffic-congestion relief.

House Bill 3290, introduced this week, adds congestion relief to transportation-policy goals already in state law — and moves it to the top of the list.

The measure, Democrats say, is largely about semantics and in the end changes nothing.

Yet they hope it might quiet Republicans who've repeatedly attacked Democrats for not making congestion relief their top transportation priority.

"We're trying to take that away," said Rep. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, a co-sponsor of the bill.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag released a report last year calling for the state to make congestion relief a top priority. That prompted anti-tax activist Tim Eyman to promote an initiative that seeks to reduce traffic jams. And Dino Rossi, the GOP candidate for governor, quickly grabbed onto the issue, as did Republican leaders statewide.

Both Gov. Christine Gregoire and Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond say reducing congestion is important, but safety comes first.

Rossi, in particular, has gone after Gregoire over transportation. "As governor, I will make congestion relief my No. 1 transportation priority," Rossi said earlier this month.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, the bill's prime sponsor, said that if the auditor and GOP had not made a ruckus, it wouldn't have occurred to her to change the transportation goals approved by the Legislature last year.

The five goals include stewardship, protecting the environment, preserving existing highways and improving safety. There's also a goal that talks about "mobility" and improving the movement of goods and people.

Democrats contend improving mobility is the same thing as reducing congestion.

Clibborn's bill deletes the wording about mobility and adds this goal: "Congestion: To reduce congestion and thereby improve the predictable movement of goods and people throughout Washington state."

Clibborn said if "people want to have a conversation about congestion, we should be able to point to this. ... It's a semantics thing."

The goals are not in order of importance, but Clibborn put congestion at the top of the list "because somebody might read it someday and think they were in rank order," she said with a laugh. "There was no intent formally, but if you wanted to read it that way. ... "

Asked if a benefit of the measure would be to take away GOP campaign fodder, Clibborn said. "Yeah, it could always be construed that way."

House Deputy Republican Leader Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the bill wouldn't silence his party if approved by the Legislature. "We've made congestion relief a priority, and we think it will take a lot more than moving around one word in a bill," he said.

For House Republicans, reducing congestion means adding more lanes to highways to make room for increasing traffic.

Clibborn expects to hold a hearing on her bill soon.

Marty Brown, Gregoire's chief lobbyist, said he thought the governor would be OK with the bill but said Gregoire still believes safety is the top priority when it comes to the state's transportation needs.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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