Key Peninsula residents who have tried for years to attract attention to the safety problems of State Route 302 may consider the funding for the highway in the newly adopted transportation budget long overdue. But the apparent good news is far outweighed by concerns regarding how the transportation package is funded — and the small return local residents would receive from the new taxes.
The $8.5 billion transportation package signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire in May includes $5 million for establishing a new 302 corridor, a project estimated to cost $143 million.
“Those are design dollars, for the state Department of Transportation staff to research and design a new corridor, and not much more,” said Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee. “The good news is that improvements to 302 are finally on the radar screen, and they haven’t been (before).”
The package includes an additional $5 million toward widening 302 from Purdy to Creviston.
The last time 302 got major attention was in 1992, when lawmakers appropriated funds to study the corridor. One of the report’s recommendations included constructing, in the long term, an alternative route. The report said that “as this formerly rural region becomes more suburbanized, pressure on existing transportation facilities will continue to erode the level of service along SR-302.”
The transportation package will cost residents 9.5 cents per gallon in new taxes, implemented over four years. Based on the 2000 U.S. Census, about 72 percent of Key Pen residents commute to work 30 or more minutes. About 20 percent commute for 45-59 minutes, and about 26 percent commute more than one hour. For a person driving to work 35 miles in a car, for example, it will cost about $67 per year just to drive to work and back. That’s in addition to the roughly $36 (for commuting) this person is paying into the “nickel tax” adopted in 2003 for road improvements.
But that’s not all. The projects proposed for King, Pierce and Snohomish County, including SR-302 corridor, Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, 520 floating bridge, and Interstate 405, must receive matching funds from the tri-county Regional Transportation Investment District, or the state funds will be diverted to other areas.
That means voters in those counties must approve additional taxes. A $13.2 billion RTID proposal dated March 2004 estimated the cost burden for a household with the median income of $40,000 to $50,000 (KP’s median is $49,000) at $271 per year. Add to that $720 per year in tolls those commuting over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge would be paying (actually $960 per year by the time the entire 9.5-cent tax is in effect in 2010). Assuming the RTID taxes would kick in by 2010, this KP commuter would pay a total of $1,063 per year to get to work, and a lot more for going grocery shopping, kids’ games etc. Additional costs would incur as businesses pass the tax to consumers.
Kjris Lund, executive director of the RTID, said the board will “reshape the package in light of the legislative approval.” The latest RTID proposal included widening part of 302 and building a new corridor from the vicinity of 144th Street NW, with 2015 as the estimated midpoint of construction.
“We are assessing with Department of Transportation staff what exactly did the Legislature fund,” she said. “In general, people have been concurring that projects identified on the RTID are priorities, but some projects can emerge as new priorities.” The RTID board includes representatives from all the counties. (Lee is an alternate member for Pierce County.)
Of the $8.5 billion transportation funding, a big portion is dedicated to Seattle-area projects. “There is great concern about fairness when it comes to our area,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, who along with Rep. Pat Lantz and Sen. Bob Oke voted against the transportation budget. “I don’t want our area to pay additionally until we see benefits from it.”
The new gas tax would cost rural residents such as those on the Key Pen far more than those in Seattle, says local resident Rich Hildahl, because rural residents have to drive bigger vehicles by necessity and drive much farther. But Seattle residents are the ones benefiting the most.
“The 9.5-cent tax is only a down payment,” he said. “For a rural area like Key Peninsula, it’s horrible legislation.”
Hildahl said he would support more taxes had the process been more transparent and had the legislators disclosed the truth. As is, much of the funding goes toward “urban renewal” in Seattle and projects that will have almost no impact on local transportation, he says, and taxpayers are asked to pay for projects that don’t have defined plans. South Sound residents are essentially being held hostage, said Hildahl, who has worked on development projects for The World Bank with countries including China and Russia. “There have been so many games played with the transportation package” without addressing obvious and fundamental concerns, he said.
An effort that nearly made it through the Legislature may have provided some relief to Gig Harbor/Key Pen residents. A bill to allow counties to exempt areas from the regional transportation tax had strong support but died at the last moment. RTID director Lund said when the board looks at next year’s work plan, it could consider the boundary adjustments and make recommendations. When asked whether eliminating an area like the Peninsula from the RTID taxation proposal would also eliminate any Peninsula projects from funding, Lund said it would be up to the board but both possibilities existed.
The 2006 Legislature is slated to bring the RTID bill back, but in the meantime a group of citizens is trying to recall the 9.5- cent gas tax altogether. They must collect 225,014 signatures by July 8 to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. The tax will make Washington top in the nation for gasoline taxes, but will not provide real transportation solutions, the group says.
“We already have the fifth-highest gasoline tax in the country. Obviously, the strategy is to have a little bit for everybody to sell the big subsidy for Seattle. Seattle residents will not have the burden of paying because they don’t commute,” Hildahl said. “If our legislators have the courage of their convictions, they will sign the petition calling for the rescinding the proposed 9.5-cent tax and start over with a sound and fair plan in the next session.”