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DOT chief plugs gas tax in visit

The Quinault enroute from Port. Townsend to Keystone. Department of Transportations 20 year plan includes two new 110-car shallow draft vessels for the Keystone/Port Townsend run. - Ken George
The Quinault enroute from Port. Townsend to Keystone. Department of Transportations 20 year plan includes two new 110-car shallow draft vessels for the Keystone/Port Townsend run.
— image credit: Ken George

The guy who runs the state Department of Transportation couldn’t get a sand truck to help unsnarl a traffic mess in the snow at the ferry dock last Wednesday morning.

Using a cellular phone, he found that the problem was the DOT has an agreement with the city of Mukilteo to sand the road when needed. But transportation officials weren’t able to figure out where the Mukilteo public works staff were and why they weren’t doing their job.

The traffic crunch got so bad that Mukilteo officials eventually asked the DOT to suspend ferry service for awhile so they could clean up the roads.

Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald told his tale of traffic misadventure to the members of the Skagit / Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization to illustrate the complexities of the problems he deals with and to show how a breakdown in part of the transportation infrastructure affects the larger system.

“The whole system was broken down,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.”

What MacDonald was in Oak Harbor talking about is the state’s multitude of intermingled transportation problems, the Transportation Department’s 20-year transportation plan and the need for a hike in the gas tax.

The 20-year plan identifies several “priority projects” for Whidbey Island. Here’s a look at the proposals:

* Construction of a new multimodal terminal in Mukilteo with two piers to allow three 130-car ferries to simultaneously operate at 20-minute intervals. The plan states that the current two-boat wait level of service standard will be exceeded by 2005 if the project isn’t competed.

* Two new 110-car shallow draft vessels for the Keystone / Port Townsend ferry.

* Eventual replacement or additional capacity for Deception Pass bridge, which is “a serious transportation bottleneck.”

Yet, MacDonald warned that there’s no possible way that all the projects identified in the plan, though he agrees all are valid and important, can be done in the time frame. He said the gas tax would have to be raised by 85 cents a gallon or more to afford that.

MacDonald said an 8-cent increase would go a long way toward solving traffic woes, but it would only pay for a portion of the priorities on the 20-year plan, which he says is more of a “wish list.” He said the gas tax would have to be raised by 85 cents or more to pay for all the projects.

The problem, he explained, is that state transportation has been underfunded for 20 years. Transportation projects are funded mainly by the gas tax, which hasn’t increased in real, inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980. At the same time, both growth and wages have increased greatly.

The state gas tax is currently only the 23rd highest in the country, according to MacDonald, while most other states also have income tax to help pay for road construction.

He said the Legislature simply needs to find the courage to pass a gas tax, or the state’s transportation problems will topple the economy.

“It’s a problem that has to be solved by the Legislature getting it together,” he said. “If they keep walking away and saying it’s too hard a problem to solve, we’re going to get ourselves into a very tough situation.”

But the members of the Skagit / Island RTPO, who are officials from both counties and all the municipalities within, disagreed on how the gas tax should be spent. Several officials said the money should go toward a list of projects from all over the state so that all taxpayers can see a result.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said the county’s transportation problems pale in comparison to the massive traffic dilemmas in the greater Seattle area. He said he disagrees with the idea of using the gas tax to fund a large list of projects all over the state.

“If you spread it all over the state, you won’t accomplish anything,” he said. “I don’t know if my constituents agree, but I am willing to participate in the fix.”

At the same time, Shelton conceded that all the major transportation problems in Island County are “owned by the state.”

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen complained that the city always loses when the DOT makes out a list of construction projects. Because of the concurrency law, which mandates there must be transportation in place before development, she said the DOT’s inability to keep up with needed roadwork in the city has resulted in “a moratorium on development.”

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