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Inslee sets Apple Cup deadline for transportation plan, talks SR-522

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee talks with Reporter staff members. - Craig Grosshart/Bellevue Reporter
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee talks with Reporter staff members.
— image credit: Craig Grosshart/Bellevue Reporter

The annual football game between the University of Washington and Washington State University is a rivalry that has a long tradition. The Apple Cup often pits brother against brother and one side of the state against the other. But there is another tradition that sometimes pits Eastern Washington against Western Washington - state transportation funding.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says he wants to see a transportation bill on his desk before the 2013 Apple Cup is over. He also wants it to be a bipartisan effort that identifies the $10 billion in revenue sources needed to keep the state's roads and bridges from failing. That could be as difficult as getting through traffic to Husky stadium for the Apple Cup itself.

"November is the month for action here," Inslee told a room full of Sound Publishing editors and reporters on Oct. 25. "Actually, April and May were the months."

The governor said he is disappointed the Senate was unable to come up with a transportation bill after six months while the House passed its legislation. Senate Republicans opted not to approve the House bill in favor of launching a listening tour in Washington to explore ways to find savings through reforms before pushing for tax increases.

Inslee said that the House bill would have allocated $8.5 million for State Route 522, which goes through both Bothell and Kenmore and is used by many to bypass tolls on the 520 bridge.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker said that the city has spent $12 million on SR-522 improvements. State routes are normally maintained by the state government. Baker said that the city could not wait for the state to get around to the project.

"How long should we wait?" asked Baker. "There are safety issues and we need to make sure it is safe for Kenmore residents."

Tolling was a big topic of the meeting between Inslee and Reporter staff members. Toll mitigation issues for Lake Washington bridges not only concern Northshore residents but also residents in Renton, the other bypass route, and those living on Mercer Island.

"We have seen an increase of about 12 percent in traffic volumes on 522," said Baker.

Some state lawmakers are looking at adding a toll to the I-90 bridge to complete funding efforts for the 520 bridge. The I-90 floating bridge and the I-90 East Channel bridge are the only ways on and off Mercer Island and many residents are fighting the idea of a toll.

"I get emails from people on Mercer Island asking me for help," said Baker, who thinks that a toll on I-90 will only exacerbate the issues with elevated traffic volumes on SR-522.

Toll mitigation for Kenmore and Bothell, and cities such as Lake Forest Park and even Woodinville, is a big issue.

All the cities signed a letter to Inslee in March requesting toll mitigation.

Inslee pointed out that Kenmore received a $5.2 million grant from the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board this summer.

Traffic volume increases also impact other roads through the four cities, including the Sammamish River Bridge in Kenmore, which links the neighborhoods of Inglewood and Finn Hill with downtown Kenmore and SR-522. The west span of the bridge was built in 1938 and needs to be replaced. It would cost an estimated $20 million for the project.

"I have seen a bridge collapse," said Inslee, referring to the Skagit River Bridge collapse in May. "And [the Sammamish River Bridge] is a perfect example of a bridge that needs the funding. It is why we need a transportation bill."

Inslee pointed out that the Skagit River Bridge, which was supposed to take six months to re-open, was repaired and opened in just a month. Inslee gave the credit to the new head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, Lynn Peterson, who sat in on the meeting.

Inslee said that Peterson is implementing reforms within the department, such as improvements to permitting processes, cutting fat from projects and streamlining maintenance.

What the state doesn't need, said the governor, is to channel sales tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund, as Republican lawmakers have proposed, or removing sales tax from transportation projects entirely. That would mean stripping more money from education, Inslee said, which is a step backward in fulfilling the Washington Supreme Court's ruling the state needs to invest $3-4 billion more into education.

"The first order of business is, don't dig the hole any deeper," Inslee said. "There are people in one of the caucuses who suggested that let's just dig that hole another $400 million deeper and take that money from the general fund that's generated by sales tax from construction projects and move that money into the transportation fund. … It's a scientific principle, once you are in the hole, stop digging."

While the governor said there are various avenues for approving a transportation plan, he doesn't want to prejudge how the House and Senate will reach its final destination. Closing tax loopholes would be one method of cost savings, said Inslee, using as an example a tax exemption approved for the timber industry that oil and gas companies also are utilizing.

The governor painted a bleak picture for the state should a transportation plan not be approved before the Apple Cup, which occurs again on Black Friday next month. In King County, public transportation would be affected first.

"The first thing that's going to hit them between the eyes is the elimination of bus service, and that has an economic toll on our state," said Inslee. "It makes it more frustrating to get to work in the morning, but it also takes an economic toll on our state. That means companies don't move here because congestion increases. It means that workers are stuck in traffic, so they show up to work later because they used to be able to take a reliable bus to work. Now, they're waiting in their car sitting in a traffic jam waiting to get to Microsoft. It takes economic productivity out of the state."

Inslee said he understands the frustration of King County residents facing potential tolling of the I-90 bridge between Interstate 5 in Seattle and Interstate 405 in Bellevue to make up the $1.4 billion shortfall for completion of the 520 bridge project. He added the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River earlier this year highlights the importance of proper maintenance.

Tolling I-90 is an uncertainty, and there are several options being considered, including 11 alternatives that would mitigate the impact to Mercer Islanders. Increasing the state gas tax is also a possibility.

"They need to talk to their legislators now about this issue," he said. "And here's the reason: The more they convince legislators to find a solution that is not tolling, the better off they are. The more they convince their legislators to raise the $1.4 billion for 520 in some other way, which might mean a gas tax, it might mean licensing fees, whatever their other solution is, the less pressure there will be on tolling."

But other means of paying for the 520 bridge, like a gas tax, will not be an easy sell in Eastern Washington.

Bellevue reporter Brandon Macz also contributed to this story.

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