Traffic talks jam town hall
October 1, 2013
By Peter Clark
Traffic talks are in a jam.
To address ongoing transportation problems and lobby for a Legislature special session this fall, local and regional representatives met for a town hall Sept. 26. An overflowing crowd came to Issaquah City Hall to voice concerns about traffic and hear possible solutions.
Washington State Department of Transportation Regional Administrator Lorena Eng joined Sen. Mark Mullet, Rep. Jay Rodne, Rep. Chad Magendanz, King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, Issaquah City Council President Fred Butler, former Bothell City Councilman Dick Paylor and North Bend Mayor Kenneth Hearing to have a discussion in an attempt to resurrect the failed Legislature funding package and hear citizen opinions.
‘Where does that go?’
Eng began by giving a breakdown of transportation spending from taxes and explaining why the budget for the department is so tight.
“We pay 37 ½ cents in gas tax. Where does that go?” she asked.
She said 14 ½ cents go to pay off improvement debt. Eleven cents goes to cities and counties, and they have to spend it on roads. And 4 cents is to pay off previous transit debt.
“That leaves us 8 ½ cents to do all the maintenance and preservation that we have to do,” she said. “We just don’t have the funds to do much because it’s tied up. Zero percent of the gas tax is diverted to other purposes.”
Rodne led the panel, giving his view of the current state of transportation and his opinion where the public should put its blame.
“Lorena is here as an ambassador,” he said of Eng. “It’s us who should be held accountable. The Legislature has not been doing our job of oversight.”
A $10 billion package, which would have included a 10 ½-cent gas tax, failed in the State House June 26. Supporting legislators hoped to fund maintenance, improvements and a bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Though it was a pet project of Gov. Jay Inslee, multiple fears over the tax increase, lack of system reform and the inclusion of light rail on the proposed bridge caused enough in the Democrat-led chamber for them to jump ship and side with the Republicans to squash the bill.
Butler told Issaquah’s side to the crowd.
“For Issaquah, I-90 is our lifeline to the rest of the world headed west,” he said. “If there was a better alternative to the Issaquah-Hobart Road, then people would take it. If you’re surrounded by three mountains and a lake and there is only one way through, it gets pretty unbearable.”
He gave a modest solution for the town and pleaded with state government to work together.
“I would like to see a modest amount of money for an intersection improvement plan, which is the first step we would have to make,” he said. “I would hope the reforms that the Legislature agrees to tackle can be ones of bipartisan support. If not, we’re going to be stuck on partisanship and ideology and nothing’s going to get done.”
Eng offered one resolution to I-90 slowdowns, though she did not indicate any definite plan for implementation. She said the Department of Transportation was looking at shoulder driving for peak time traffic, a tactic used elsewhere in the county.
“For the most part, I-90 works well,” Eng said. “And wouldn’t it be great during peak times, to use the shoulder to ease congestion? It won’t be the shoulders as is, there will have to be improvements.”
Hearing presented the smaller town perspective of the failed transportation bill.
“The majority of the cities in the state supported the transportation bill as presented,” Hearing said. “North Bend voted unanimously not to support it.”
He said he felt the money could be used more responsibly, and pointed to North Bend side roads that were in disrepair due to a constricted budget.
“I feel there wasn’t enough money in the cities,” he said of the funding package. “We’ve asked for more money for years for our arterial streets and we have no way of funding them outside of the general fund.”
Together on taxation
Some common ground was found over the inclusion of another gas tax within a possible transportation package. While the Republican representatives present were cold to the high number in the early bill, they both offered some support.
“I am kind of emboldened that there are eight other states that just raised their gas tax,” Magendanz said, continuing in jest. “I would entertain a 5 to 9.9 percent gas tax.”
“I think the gas tax is the most efficient way to pay for transportation improvements,” he said.
Down the line, all said they would support an increase for the region’s needs.
Division quickly sprang up over defining those needs, even locally.
Lambert said attention must be paid to existing roadways and transit, adding that a complete lack of funding would drastically affect the region.
“We’ve got to preserve our infrastructure and that has got to be our focus right now,” she said. “We do need to put money into the roads. If we do not get money by July, we will have to cut 600,000 hours of buses in King County.”
Mullet stressed the leadership needed in handling the influx of people to the region.
“This growth, it’s like fighting the tides. The second that growth goes away, it means we’ve screwed up,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up. In the 1970s, we could have done light rail and we didn’t. It’s only going to get more and more expensive.
“Sound Transit is trying to get a system in place in a city that is already dense and built out and that’s expensive,” he added. “If we don’t get our act together, then we will be overwhelmed by people that we don’t know what to do with.”
In the end, the town hall impasse reflected the one in the Legislature. While Mullet, a Democrat, impressed on the crowd the importance of managing unstoppable population growth, Rodne, a Republican, stood firm on his refusal to use taxpayer money in inefficient ways. Rodne said without substantial changes to the way projects were chosen, designed and built, a bill would not receive his vote.
“Until we have those reforms, I’m not going to support a system that’s broken,” he said.