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Election Modifies Landscape For Transit Packages

Original Article

With the election over, work is resuming after a five-month hiatus on a regional transportation package to present to voters, perhaps next fall. But Tuesday’s vote dramatically altered the political context in which that work will be done.

Among the significant changes:

• By a 2-to-1 ratio, King County voters said yes to an advisory measure that asked whether they would like to vote on a package of projects and taxes in 2005. Some members of the three-county Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) board say that bodes well for such a plan at the polls. Others say it’s meaningless.

• Democrats apparently won control of the state Senate, and Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, powerful chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, apparently lost his re-election bid. Both developments buoyed the hopes of environmentalists and others who want big changes in the rules that govern the projects and taxes the RTID can propose, changes Horn had blocked.

• Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, an influential member of the RTID board and an advocate of suburban interests and roads, was elected attorney general. His likely replacement on the board: Metropolitan King County Councilman David Irons, R-Sammamish.

• McKenna’s nemesis on the board, Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, has confirmed he plans to run for the Seattle City Council next year, a switch prompted by voter approval Tuesday of an initiative that will shrink the County Council from 13 members to nine.

Pelz, who pushed for more transit and more money for the city, says he’ll remain on the RTID board in 2005. But, at the same time, he’ll be running for his political life. And, regardless of the outcome, he won’t be eligible to remain on the board in 2006.

There’s no consensus on the impact these changes will have on the RTID package. Different players have different agendas and different interpretations.

“It’s probably about as murky as it can get at this point,” said Steve Leahy, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

When the Legislature authorized King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to form the RTID in early 2002, many expected a package on the ballot that fall. Instead, the board has spent nearly three years debating the plan’s size, the right mix of transit and highway projects and the taxes to propose to pay for them.

Those conflicts often have pitted Seattle against the rest of the region.

By a 6-1 vote, the board tentatively approved a $12.4 billion package last spring. That collapsed when big businesses, citing discouraging poll results, announced they wouldn’t finance a campaign to win voter approval for any plan this fall.

Irons and Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, a pivotal member of the RTID board, said King County’s overwhelming “yes” vote on Advisory Measure 1 last week shows voters will support a package.

The measure asked voters whether they would like a proposal on the 2005 ballot to “relieve congestion and increase safety” by providing local money for such projects as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Evergreen Point Floating Bridge and light-rail extensions to the University District and the airport.

“People are saying they want some solutions and fix transportation now,” Irons said.

But Pelz and House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the results should be discounted because voters weren’t asked to pay for anything.

“I think it was a fairly meaningless exercise,” Murray said. He pointed to the heavy vote — even in more tax-friendly King County — against Initiative 884, which would have raised the state sales tax 1 percentage point for education.

“If people are unwilling to spend it on kids,” he said, “they’re not going to spend it on roads.”

The draft packages the RTID board has considered so far rely mostly on the sales tax for funding; it’s the principal revenue source the Legislature provided the panel.

A second King County advisory measure asked voters to choose one of five taxes to pay for regional transportation projects: a sales-tax increase or one of four taxes on vehicles, gasoline or driving.

The sales tax finished second, with about 20 percent of the vote. A motor-vehicle excise tax finished first with 26 percent.

Pelz said the outcome confirms his sense that the sales tax is unpopular, as well as regressive, and that the RTID board must look to other sources for money. But Patterson said she was surprised the sales tax fared as well as it did and doesn’t see any need to ask the Legislature for additional tax options next session.

The results don’t provide much guidance, said state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald: “If a sixth alternative was on the ballot — none of the above — it would have carried the day.”

In addition to pointing the RTID toward a sales-tax increase for funding, the district’s authorizing legislation also requires that most money be spent on projects associated with major state highways. Environmentalists and Seattle elected officials, who contend such a package won’t pass, have pushed to amend the law in the past two legislative sessions, without success.

Horn’s departure could tilt the political balance. “There’s no question Jim Horn was a major impediment to moving forward,” Pelz said.

With Horn gone and Democrats running the Senate, “I think you’ll see a wholesale rewrite of the RTID legislation,” said Peter Hurley of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition.

Most RTID board members, however, may not go along with that. Irons and Patterson said it isn’t necessary; Patterson said she’s satisfied with a provision of the existing law that allows the RTID to couple with Sound Transit to craft a joint roads-transit proposal.

“I don’t see that there’s enough votes to make substantial changes,” Irons said.

But Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Sumner, who probably will assume the RTID board’s chair next year, said he’s open to the possibility: “I don’t think we have identified the magic formula yet for what the voters are willing to support.”

RTID legislation won’t be the only item on the Legislature’s transportation agenda. Another statewide gas-tax increase to fund road projects also is on the table. Leahy, of the Seattle chamber, said it’s emerged as a higher priority for the Transportation Partnership, a group of business leaders concerned about the region’s traffic problems.

But Bruce Agnew of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute said such major projects as rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replacing the Highway 520 bridge can’t be done with state money alone.

Three groups — the Transportation Partnership, a mostly business group convened by the Discovery Institute and local elected officials meeting under the auspices of the Puget Sound Regional Council — intend to make recommendations to the Legislature on how to proceed before the end of the year.

Agnew said the Discovery Institute hopes to bring officials from Denver and San Diego to Seattle next month to discuss how they got voters to agree last Tuesday to pay for transportation projects with sales taxes.

Denver-area voters approved a tax increase for a mostly rail package. San Diego-area voters agreed to extend a half-cent sales tax for roads and transit.

Meanwhile, the RTID board meets Dec. 9 for the first time since June. There’s already some talk that so much remains to be done that it may be better to hold off on submitting a package to voters until 2006.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com