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Critical crossroads: Roads and Transit vote
In less than a month, voters will weigh in on whether local road and transit improvements are worth their $47 billion long-term costs.
The high-magnitude Roads and Transit ballot measure, known as Proposition One, goes before King, Snohomish and Pierce County voters in the state's general election on Nov. 6.
If approved, the measure would result in multiple road projects and transit options all aimed at improving the region's troubling traffic problems.
"We need to have a strategic long-term vision that addresses the number one issue (in this region), which is transportation," Federal Way Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell said.
If the plan is passed, Federal Way residents will see a direct impact. Interstate 5 will be widened near the city and improvements to the infamous "triangle" where Interstate 5, State Route 18 and State Route 161 converge will be completed. Mile upon mile of light-rail transit will be built.
"The projects that affect Federal Way are absolutely critical," Ferrell said.
The Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID) planning committee, founded in 2003 by the Washington State Legislature, was assigned the task of creating a plan to relieve traffic congestion in the three counties. A partnership with Sound Transit was later formed. The two entities have compiled Sound Transit 2 and the RTID Blueprint for Success to comprise the Proposition One Roads and Transit ballot measure.
The plan has its benefits, but also an astounding price tag and possible environmental effects.
"This package is really redefining how we are investing in our highway system," said Aaron Toso, Yes on Roads and Transit campaign communication director.
Interstate 5 expansion:
A currently unspecified number of traffic lanes will be constructed between South 320th Street and the Kent-Des Moines Road, north of Federal Way, according to www.yesonroadsandtransit.org. The area is experiencing growth, and roads are needed to accommodate the increase in population, according to the Web site.
Interstate 5, State Route 18, State Route 161 improvements:
The "triangle" has been a headache to commuters in South King County for years. The weaving lanes and cloverleaf loop ramps, used to exit Interstate 5, State Route 18 and State Route 161 to reach Federal Way, cause the interchange to be a dangerous and congested area, according to the RTID Blueprint for Progress I-5/SR-18 Federal Way Congestion Relief Project description on page 75 of the document, found online at www.rtid.org.
Federal Way city officials have worked to improve the area for the past seven years, said Cary Roe, Federal Way public works director. The city has lobbied in Washington, D.C., as well as Olympia for money to fund improvements to the interchange, Ferrell said.
The "triangle" was not part of the original RTID Blueprint for Progress, Roe said. Federal Way talked to Metropolitan King County Council members and other regulatory boards to push for its inclusion, he said.
"We've worked hard to get the triangle out of the planning level and into the design level," Roe said.
Approximately $118 million in state and federal funds have been set aside for the project, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation Web site. Proposition One would bring in the estimated $120 million, including inflation costs, needed to complete the project, Roe said.
Improvements are "all just talk until we get the money in place," Ferrell said.
Once completed, the two cloverleaf loop ramps will be converted into flyover ramps, according to the RTID Blueprint for Progress. Direct connections to State Route 161 from southbound and northbound Interstate 5 will be constructed, according to the same document.
Auxiliary lanes on Interstate 5 will be built, thus improving merges and exits from the freeway at this location, according to the same document.
The project will begin in 2010, according to the WSDOT. The changes to the "triangle" will be the most visible ones resulting from the ballot measure in many Federal Way residents' eyes, Roe said. However, other improvements will be noticeable.
A light-rail system, with a section extending from SeaTac to Tacoma and accessible in Federal Way, is the largest single transit effort of the plan.
Fifty miles of light rail will be constructed, Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said. Once completed and operable in 2027, a total of 70 miles of light rail, with the ability to connect people to Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island, Northgate, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood, Alderwood, Des Moines, Federal Way, SeaTac and Tacoma, will be available, Gray said. Limiting improvements to expanding the region's freeways will not suffice, Toso said.
"We can't pave our way out of (the traffic problems)," he said.
By 2030, Sound Transit estimates up to 11 million people traveling the SeaTac to Tacoma corridor will use the light-rail system, Gray said. The system will deliver residents to their destination on time 99 percent of the time, he said.
"That kind of reliability can only come from a dedicated right-of-way that (light rail) provides," Gray said in an e-mail Oct. 10.
The Legislature would not allow Sound Transit to introduce a transit-only measure to voters, Gray said. If Washingtonians want an extensive light-rail system, this is the time to vote for it, he said.
As appealing as some of the Roads and Transit plan projects may be, the plan pits possible solutions to the region's chokehold traffic problems against the high costs and environmental effects of those solutions.
The most apparent drawback to Proposition One is its eye-widening long-term costs.
Capital costs, in 2006 dollars, of $17.8 billion $7 billion for roads and $10.8 billion for transit will be used to fund Proposition One. Additional costs will be accumulated as managing and financing the proposition spans the projected 20-year building process.
The total cost for the improvements, once the 20-year building process has been completed, will have reached $37.8 billion, which includes costs for construction, maintenance, operation, interest on the bonds and inflation rates, Toso said.
By 2057, when the last bond is expected to be paid off, the total cost for the Roads and Transit plan will have escalated to $47 billion, which includes the $37.8 billion costs plus the additional $9.2 billion to completely close out the debt, Toso said.
Residents in the Regional Transportation District Improvement zone in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties will be paying off 30-year bonds attached to the plan until 2057. Bonds for road projects will be purchased in 2008 and will be paid off in 2037, Toso said. Forty percent of Sound Transit Project 2 will be funded by bonds, which will be paid off in 2057, he said.
Increased sales and motor vehicle excise taxes will be used to pay off the bonds. A sales tax increase of six-tenths of 1 percent, or 6 cents per every $10 spent on retail purchases, will be seen by residents in the Sound Transit and RTID districts, with the exception of areas of Snohomish County, which are outside the Sound Transit district and will have a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase applied to retail purchases. An eight-tenths percent ($80 per each $10,000 of a vehicle's value) rise in car tabs, also known as motor vehicle excise taxes, will be seen by residents in the RTID district.
One's pocketbook will not be the only thing suffering from the Roads and Transit plan if voters approve it, said Mike O'Brien, Cascade Chapter Sierra Club chairman. The plan will increase carbon emissions and global warming. The club opposes the 182 miles of new roadways, arguing that the roads will only increase traffic in the region.
He cites a study performed by Sightline.org noting that each mile of new highway built results in more than 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases over a 50-year lifespan.
"Our biggest concern is that we need to do something meaningful about global warming," O'Brien said.
If the Legislature had allowed the Sound Transit 2 plan to be put to voters as its own package, the Sierra Club would have supported the measure, O'Brien said. Light rail could have been proposed in 2006 and already under way, he said.
The high prices and environmental impacts of Proposition One may leave voters to ponder if more affordable and eco-friendly solutions will be presented at a later date, were this ballot measure to fail.
Regional leaders assure that this plan took five years to construct and another, better, plan will not come along soon. They warn that the measure must be passed now or the consequences will be felt for decades to come. Traffic needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner, rather than approaching the problem one small thing at a time, Toso said.
Government's duty is to provide infrastructure, Ferrell said.
"We've been focusing on smaller things in this region for 40 years," Toso said.
Contact Jacinda Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 925-5565.