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Transportation goes nowhere without funding

Policy Perspectives

As this article is written, the fate of transportation funding in Olympia is not yet known. Win, lose or draw, basic facts remain valid:
* Doing nothing is not an option. William Fulton, a leading “smart growth” advocate in California, wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that the “build nothing” model of the 1970s is as obsolete as the “build everything” model of the 1950s. California, he says, has reached its “design capacity” of 35 million people. It must continue to invest by adding capacity in smart ways.

Those in our state who argue we can’t build our way out of the problem have a problem of their own. Almost no new basic highway capacity was added in the last 25 years. Yet Central Puget Sound had three of the greatest economic and population booms in its history in the late ’70s, late ’80s and late ’90s.

* U.S. gasoline prices are a bargain. Gas at the pump costs exactly the same as jug water at the grocery. Premium waters are at least double the price of gas. That’s pretty amazing when you consider the distance crude oil must be shipped plus the cost of refining. When price swings occur, they are often larger than the 9 cent-per-gallon tax hike debated in Olympia. Yet in real dollars, long-term U.S. gasoline prices including taxes have been stable for 50 years.

* In this case, anti-tax is anti-business. Legislators who have nailed themselves to the mast of “no new taxes” owe us a favor: They ought to shut up about business climate. Any state economy – especially if it’s technology-driven – needs public investment to prosper. In Washington state, every leading business voice has spoken out on the cost of transportation gridlock.

Lawmakers from Eastern Washington can be more easily forgiven for being conflicted on this issue than those from Central Puget Sound. Our state has extreme disparities in regional conditions and legislators from slow-growth areas don’t always see the needs of economic hot spots. Hesitation among rural representatives suggests the value of allowing prosperous, fast-growing regions to vote extra taxes that don’t apply statewide.

* Hot lines are not representative government. When the proposed gas-tax hike was presented last week, legislators got some 500 “hot line” calls in protest. Big deal. That’s equal to hearing from less than one in every 10,000 state residents. Yet, this tiny sample of angry opponents was treated as if it carried a heavy message.

Political moderates weren’t likely to call and say, “Thanks for raising my taxes.” But far more than 500 people in this state surely felt, “Good for the Legislature. They’re finally doing something. Even if I have to pay more, I’ll get something that I really need.”

If the hot line response has any visible impact on the outcome of this issue, the hot lines ought to be ripped out. They may be one reason legislators recently called in a professional mediator. Have they forgotten we elect them to make decisions?

* Reforms can’t replace funding. It’s a red herring to claim that reforms could free up so much money we can build the system we need without new revenues. Yet there are a host of management changes to be pursued. Part of the running room for tax protesters has been provided by the performance of transportation agencies.

Leaving aside the sad saga of Sound Transit, the state Department of Transportation has frustrated even its friends with opaque procedures, defective plans and glacial construction schedules. The arrival of Doug MacDonald as state transportation secretary offers hope that a new era is dawning. Yet, this means spending money more effectively, not spending less money.

* If we invest more, let’s spend it smart. Despite the claims of some, smart spending can come as the result of having more resources. If added dollars are available, this should stimulate across-the-board reviews to target funds.

One example: In research commissioned by Seattle’s Discovery Institute, analyst Preston Schiller offers an in-depth perspective on the Seattle-region bus system. He notes that we have a much higher portion of extra-length buses than any other metro fleet in North America.

These buses block downtown traffic and are not neighborhood-friendly. Moreover, Metro has a rigid route system that discourages bus ridership. Schiller calls for a change in the mix of buses and routes. His analysis illustrates the fresh thinking we need.

Let’s not lose perspective. Seattle has soared in national rankings of traffic congestion. While some lawmakers seem willing to fiddle as the situation worsens, some business advocates predict doom. But as we work to improve local conditions, we should recall that gridlock is the norm in booming regions worldwide. Indeed, it’s almost an indicator of economic vitality.

That said, strategic investments are vital. The Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles comes to mind. It speeds freight trains from the port 22 miles to the main rail line. Along the way, it reconnects 11 cities that were severed by the tracks. This is the kind of win-win that can make all the difference.

In our part of the world, the Everett-Tacoma FAST corridor coalition has been making the same kind of investments. A gas tax hike would enable us to extend these vital steps to personal travel. Let’s get on with the job.

GLENN R. PASCALL’s column appears regularly in the Business Journal. He is a Seattle-based economic and public policy consultant, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Management at the University of Washington.