Lowry transportation budget stresses link between sound economy, reduced gridlock

OLYMPIA Easing traffic congestion on Washington's roads while steering the state toward a more efficient, reliable transportation system are among the goals of Gov. Mike Lowry's 1997-99 transportation budget proposal, announced today in Olympia.

The governor said his two-year $3.1 billion plan offers a dramatic new approach to solving the sort of transportation problems that pose a severe threat to the state's economy. The plan would fund a number of highway-improvement projects throughout the state and would help businesses move their products to and from the region's ports more efficiently, while also taking steps to dramatically expand the state's mass transit alternatives. In addition, the proposal offers a financing plan to fund the new investments.

Lowry said providing a more flexible funding source with a commitment to mass transit and other transportation alternatives is crucial to Washington's economic future.

"Our state's growing transportation problem is one of the few obstacles that could stall our economic growth," Lowry said. "A recent national study estimated that in the Seattle area, traffic congestion is costing $1.3 billion per year in wasted time and wasted fuel. That means that the average Seattle-area driver is wasting about $720 every year just sitting in traffic.

"We simply must find a better solution to the growing problem of gridlock than mile after additional mile of asphalt. The choice is simple: We can complain about the problem, or we can do something about it. This budget will do something about it."

Setting a Course for the Future: Transportation Alternatives

The governor said his transportation budget proposal would take steps toward a more efficient network of transportation options that will build on rather than rely on the state's highway system.

Among the proposed investments in alternative transportation:

High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes: The plan includes $1.7 billion in new bond authorizations to complete the state's core HOV lane system within the next 12 years.

Commuter and Light Rail: The $50 million provided each biennium would help fund regional transportation systems, such as that proposed by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and others being discussed in Clark and Spokane Counties. The funds would be allocated on a competitive basis by the state Department of Transportation (DOT).

Passenger Rail: To make train travel a more competitive alternative to the automobile, a $60 million investment in track and train improvements would help reduce travel time for passenger rail service between Seattle and Portland.

Community Network Boards Grants: Over the next six years, $41 million would be provided to promote better coordination between transportation, social service, health and education systems that help those left isolated by aging, poverty and disability.

Local Transit: Local transit agencies would receive $40 million over the next six years to help offset the cost of conforming with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Ferry System: Two additional Jumbo Class ferries and two passenger-only ferries would be brought into service beginning in 1997-99 to provide increased ferry service across Puget Sound.

Improving today's highway system

Building on the strengths of the current system, Lowry said his budget proposal also would fund a number of highway construction and repair projects, balancing the needs of both urban and rural residents on both sides of the state.

Among the governor's highway-related funding proposals:

Easing Congestion: The budget proposal would fund $162.5 million during 1997-99 to pay for highway construction projects aimed at relieving traffic congestion such as new lanes or access ramps and $547.1 million over the next six years.

Safety: A total of $155 million would be provided over the next six years for additional highway safety improvements, including $15.6 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects and $12 million for expanded aviation search and rescue and airport planning programs.

Freight Mobility: A total of $98.7 million over the next six years would fund a number of freight investments, including roadway and railroad grade separations in the most congested corridors, improved rail and highway access to marine ports, and removal of barriers to truck freight movement such as low bridges.

Kingdome Area Intermodal Access Project: To ease congestion around the Kingdome, $71 million is dedicated over the next six years to provide a proposed state share of the costs of a number of improvements including a pedestrian bridge and transit enhancements.

Protecting the Environment: More than $23 million would pay for stormwater management work and a new wetland mitigation banking program.

New funding methods needed to keep pace with growing demands

Lowry said a commitment to maintaining Washington's economic strength requires that the state also commit to a transportation system that can keep pace with growing needs. Without a long-term plan and a consistent, flexible source of funding, the governor said the state's economy could fall victim to its own growth.

"Companies are moving to Washington because of our tax incentives, our quality of life, our commitment to education and training," Lowry said. "Without question, that growth is having a very positive effect on our economy creating thousands of new jobs.

"However, unless those companies and others can be assured that our transportation system will help them get their products to market and their employees to work, we could not only lose that momentum, we could lose those businesses."

Traditionally, funding for the state's transportation needs has relied on the gas tax, with supplementation from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). Yet while project costs continue to grow with inflation, the state gas tax does not. In addition, the 18th Amendment to the State Constitution restricts the use of gas tax proceeds for highway-related expenditures.

Lowry said that without a broader, more flexible funding system, the state will be able to do little more than maintain the current highway system and complete a few additional projects hardly the investment needed to convince other world-class companies to locate in Washington.

"A more efficient, reliable transportation system is the missing link between our strong economy and a prosperous future," Lowry said. "And whether we talk about completing that link with mass transit, commuter rail, additional highways or something else, we must realize the only way that demand will ever lessen is if the economy falters and fewer people need to get to work.

"Frankly, an investment in our transportation system funded by those who use it seems like a pretty fair trade for a sound economic future."

The governor's transportation budget proposal would extend the current state sales tax to the full purchase price of fuel at the gas pump. In effect, the plan will increase the cost of a gallon of gas by approximately 9 cents (based on an average per-gallon cost of $1.30). Today, the state-imposed gas tax rate is 23 cents per gallon ranking Washington 17th among all states in fuel tax rates.

The governor's budget proposal also calls for the sale of bonds to finance completion of the HOV core system, as well as $230 million in one-time funding for urban/rural projects aimed at easing highway congestion. In addition, counties and cities in Washington will be able to collect additional revenues for their transportation needs by voting to impose the local option sales tax on fuel.

# # #

For more information, contact the Governor's Communications Office at (360) 753-6790.