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Road weary and seeking a fix

"Wednesday, local officials who sit on the Skagit/Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization board got their first real look at a list of 64 options on how to fix Washington's growing transportation problem.The options, prepared by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation during the last eight months, include some potentially radical changes in the way transportation issues are handled and paid for. From its opening line which states, For the good of Washington, we must take action, the commission's report paints a picture of a system nearing crisis levels and financially unprepared for the future.Connie Niva, chair of the Washington Transportation Commission and a member of the Blue Ribbon team, met with the RTPO board in Coupeville this week to lay out the options and get feedback. Niva said that the current state system of roads, freeways, ferries, bridges and public transit is breaking down under the weight of ever-increasing population, which has grown by 41 percent in just the last 20 years. During that same time, the number of miles traveled per day by Washington drivers has jumped by 78 percent, she said.Last year, about 794 miles of the state highways were classified as congested. That number is expected to reach 2,600 miles within the next 20 years under the current transportation plan and growth rate.The ferry system is hanging by a thread in my opinion, said Niva. And future funding is in doubt. But finding more funding won't be easy. Transportation officials are running headlong into strong public opinion against the current system. Niva said that a recent public survey showed that 80 percent of residents felt that the state would have enough money to do what is needed to be done if it just spent its money more wisely.What the public wants is more for less, or at least more than they're getting for their money today, she said. What they want is results and not just talking.The Blue Ribbon Commission's list of options may be a first step toward those results. At the Wednesday RTPO meeting, the mayors of Langley, Oak Harbor and Coupeville, the county commissioners and representatives from the Department of Transportation, the Port of Coupeville and local planning departments mostly just listened and said they would take the next month to review the full report before making any official recommendations to the state commission.One of the potential options did draw a few comments, however. It proposes that local jurisdictions, rather than the state, be given the authority to plan, fund and fix their own problems. This option is favored by some of the more densely populated counties, such as King County, which have a large tax base from which to gather money. But county Commissioner Mike Shelton said in Island County, if the county's 75,000 people had the added burden of maintaining ferry service, the state highways and two mainland bridges themselves, it could create an unreasonable tax rate.We're all part of a system, he said.Some of the other options include:* Making safety and maintenance a top priority.* Phasing out the use of studded tires.* Seeking more private sector investment in operating and maintaining roads, bridges, etc.* Charging drivers per mile to use the roads or charging special fees for entering certain areas.* Raising the gasoline tax or increasing sales tax on gasoline.* Increasing or decreasing the state Department of Transportation's responsibilities over roads and ferries.* Streamlining the permitting process and eliminating multiple reviews of transportation projects.* Encouraging businesses to use four-day work weeks, flexible work schedules and public transit.* Charging a new vehicle fee based on the weight of the vehicle.---------------------Road fixThe commission's full list of options for improving the state's transportation system is available online at www.brct.wa.gov. Public comment can be mailed, faxed or e-mailed prior to Oct. 1. All options and public comments will then be reviewed and a final report containing the commission's recommendations to the Legislature will be issued in December. You can address your comments to 411 University Street, Suite 1200, Seattle, 98101. The e-mail address is blueribbon@seattle.econw.com. The Fax number is (206) 442-4253. "

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