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Eastside residents want state transportation action

Sonja Rassman of Bellevue makes her support for Metro known. Credit: Credit: John Stang

The King County crowd wanted to build and fix lots of highways and bridges as fast as possible.

The crowd at an Eastside gathering argued for the state Legislature to pass a package of transportation projects in November. It wanted Interstate 405 drastically upgraded. And it called for the Legislature to give King County the authority to pass a fee to keep the Metro bus system running at its present level.

Those were the major thrusts in what members of the public, county business interests and local governments told members of the Senate Transportation Committee and King County legislators — about a dozen in all — Tuesday in Bellevue. This was the first of nine feedback sessions for the transportation committee as it ponders what could and should be done if Gov. Jay Inslee calls for a special session in November on reviving a stalled transportation revenue package.

At least 300 people showed up. Seventy-four spoke before time ran out. The next session is at 6 p.m. today at 3000 Rockefeller Ave. in Everett. (The entire schedule of feedback sessions is here.)

Getting a new transportation package passed this year was clearly the top priority , shared by numerous local governments and business interests.

 "We must work together, and we must act now," said King County Executive Dow Constantine." Seattle traffic has become infamous, even on the East Coast, said Microsoft recruiter Kathryn Neal.

"I spend a lot of time just sitting in traffic,” said South King County resident Monica Whitman. No one in the crowd called for delaying action on a transportation package to beyond this November.

I-405's constant traffic jams frustrated a huge chunk of the crowd.  "Our community faces the worst traffic congestion in the state,” said Bellevue City Councilmember John Stokes. Dick Paylor of Bothell's Chamber of Commerce and of the East King County Chambers' Legislative Coalition, said, I-405 "is an economic artery, and I hope you pass a gas tax before it has an economic heart attack," said .

Also, many in the crowd wanted King County to have the legal ability to levy its own fees as a way to raise revenue and avoid a projected 17 percent cut in Metro transit service in 2014. That measure went down with the Democrats' transportation proposal that died in June. A petition with 1,000 signatures calling for that legal capability was presented to Senate Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D- Medina, at Tuesday's session.

King County Councilmember Larry Phillips said if Metro buses are cut, that will translate to more cars on roads and more congestion. "There is no area in King County that would be spared,” said Kim Allen, Redmond City Council member.

The Legislature's biggest deadlock on a transportation package has been whether to increase the state's gas tax to pay for most of the work. On Tuesday, six people specifically called for a gas tax hike, while one specifically opposed such an increase. "More gas taxes kill me. … I don't appreciate all the scare tactics,” said Kerry Hooks of Pierce County.

However, the majority of the crowd supported a transportation package full of projects to be passed later this year — a scenario possible only with a gas tax hike, which only the Legislature's Democrats want.

Senate and House Republicans and Democrats are split almost totally along party lines in supporting two drastically different approaches. In June, the Democratic-controlled House passed a transportation package with a 10.5 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax in June. The 23-Republican-two-Democrat Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, with a 25-24 majority, decided to kill that package by refusing to consider it.

Even some normally tax-averse business interests supported the Democrats' transportation package because of its job-creation potential. But the majority coalition has consistently stuck to a strict no-new-taxes stance on all legislative matters.

Later in the summer, the majority coalition unveiled its own proposed transportation package that called for raising $800 million with budget shifts, little in the way of new construction and several administrative reforms. Any discussion of raising gas taxes might wait until 2015 or 2016. The majority coalition's proposal lacked several projects that the Democratic plan wanted to fund immediately, such as extending State Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma, extending State Route 509 in King and Pierce counties and widening State Route 12 in Eastern Washington. 

People at the Bellevue session also called for improving the freeway interchanges at 124th and 148th avenues to boost massive businesses and residential developments in those areas. Some also wanted to safeguard funds for the 520 bridge reconstruction over Lake Washington, which has suffered extensive pontoon design problems, citing this route as a big traffic choke point.

Democrats earlier and some construction firms at Tuesday’s session voiced support for proposed Republican administrative reforms in the state transportation department's supervision of construction projects.

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