Referendum 51: Band-Aid or panacea?

t’s all in their hands.

Washington voters will decide in the general election the fate of the $7.7 billion transportation package Referendum 51.

Its supporters say the plan will relieve the state’s worst traffic choke points, provide safety improvements and rejuvenate the state’s aging ferry fleet over a 10-year period.

Its opponents say the measure stops short of providing adequate funding for public transit and other commuting alternatives.

In opting for or against R-51, voters in Spokane, for example, can weigh in on whether the state should purchase four new auto ferries to replace worn-out, pre-Depression era vessels in the state’s aging fleet.

Conversely, Bremerton voters will decide whether the state should seismically upgrade and improve the safety of highways near Vancouver, Wash.

Elected officials are weighing in on the referendum, including county commissioners on Monday, Oct. 7.

“Referendum 51 is not a panacea,” said Commissioner Chris Endresen. “It won’t cover every improvement that needs to be made today, but we have to invest in our future. We have to invest in our infrastructure.”

Commissioner Tim Botkin said his support for the referendum is based in part on an analysis that shows Kitsap commuters would probably get more return for the tax dollars under the referendum than citizens in other jurisdictions.

“Overall, for Kitsap County, it’s a step,” Botkin said. “And in my book, it’s a good step, based on the analysis I’ve done.”

It is also backed by Gov. Gary Locke and former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

The transportation package hinges on a 9-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, phased in over two years.

Supporters say the tax increase — the first in more than a decade — will cost average drivers about $45 annually if they drive 12,000 miles a year and get about 24 mpg.

It would also be financed by a one-time, 1 percent surcharge on the purchase of any new or used vehicle in the state.

Weight fee increases of 30 percent would also be phased in over two years for trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds, a move that would exclude recreational vehicles and pickups.

No sooner had the vote Yes on R-51 campaign been launched, than at least two organized opponents surfaced.

Transportation Choices Coalition and 1000 Friends of Washington, organizations both known for their pro-mass transit stances, have voiced opposition to the referendum.

“The money would be used to build the state’s way out of congestion,” said Peter Hurley, executive director of Transportation Choices. “There is a better alternative. The priorities are all wrong.”

Hurley says the R-51 plan ignores highway safety and maintenance concerns and worries it will cause construction delays over the next decade — to no one’s benefit, ultimately.

“Things wouldn’t get worse if this was voted down,” Hurley said. “The reality is traffic will be the thing to get worse during construction of 80 projects over 10 years and, evidence shows that adding general purpose lanes only worsens traffic in the end.”

Hurley contends the plan should incorporate more creative options for commuters such as opening up car pool lanes, bolstering transit and even installing tow trucks along highways to clear away accidents more quickly.

“Sixty percent of all congestion is caused by accidents,” he said. “A pilot project using tow trucks could cost maybe $1 million — as opposed to the more than $1 billion it will take to expand Interstate 405.”

Meanwhile, R-51 supporters recently launched a Web site at

“The money can’t be used for anything else but transportation,” said Lilly Eng, spokeswoman for the Yes on R-51 campaign. “Taxpayers are very concerned about accountability. The Web site provides a way to see where your money is going.”

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