Shelling out to save Puget Sound

With a possible cost of $20 billion, massive environmental restoration might be a hard sell in these hard times, especially when the plan isn't yet clear.
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A state ferry heads for downtown Seattle.

With a possible cost of $20 billion, massive environmental restoration might be a hard sell in these hard times, especially when the plan isn't yet clear.

Last spring, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation that took the first small step toward restoring Puget Sound's biological health by 2020, establishing a permanent Puget Sound Partnership and appropriating $238 million — not all of it new money — over the current budget biennium to start the job. That $238 million may sound like a nice chunk of change but amounts to only 3 percent of the $8 billion total price tag originally projected. If the actual cost of restoring Puget Sound is closer to $20 billion, as some have suggested, then the appropriation is a small drop in a very large bucket.

Gregoire hasn't backed away from her commitment to the Sound — indeed, she has reaffirmed it — but that is less reassuring than perhaps it should be.

For one thing, if she loses to Republican Dino Rossi in November, all bets are presumably off. For another, we have no lack of big-ticket items on our horizon, and little prospect of good times ahead.

Political leaders and journalists talk about the billions we will have to pay — whether it's through taxes or tolls or some other means — to either replace or repair the Highway 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Add to the list the road projects that weren't funded when Proposition 1 went down in flames, the maintenance projects that were never included in Proposition 1, our fleet of rusting ferries, and maybe, dare we say it, funding to keep the gladiatorial spectacles rolling in a new Tim Eyman's Initiative 960 has made legislators skittish about proposing revenue increases, and some economic soothsayers have examined the entrails and seen recession.

Whether or not "we're going into a recession at all is uncertain," Geoff Colvin writes in Fortune. "Merrill Lynch's chief economist says we're already in one; Goldman Sachs's chief economist says we'll be in one by next quarter; Lehman Brothers' chief economist still doesn't expect one. Let's not worry about what to call it: The reality is that we're in a deep economic slowdown that will affect millions of people." Clearly, Bush's tax-rebate proposal and the Fed's big rate cut are both designed to keep the R from the door, but any way you slice it, short-term economic prospects look bleak.

In last month's State of the State address, Gregoire urged the Legislature to bank most of the projected budget surplus against a recession. This does not seem a propitious time to think about raising a very large pile of new cash. Of course, by the time the Partnership is ready to pass the hat, the economy may have turned around. But the long list of competing capital expenditures won't go anywhere.

Way back in the spring of 2007, when enthusiasm for saving the Sound ran high and the housing bubble hadn't yet burst, people might have supported an $8 billion or even a $20 billion financing plan. What are the chances that they'll support it a year or two hence? Should we have caught the wave in 2007? Has it passed us by?

At a recent City Club luncheon discussion of Puget Sound, several panelists, including Puget Sound Partnership executive director David Dicks, argued that we haven't missed that chance at all, that we're laying the necessary groundwork for public financing.

Panelist John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, disagreed. He argued that if you're talking about traditional tax proposals, we have indeed missed our chance. This is no environment in which to sell people on $8 billion or so of new taxes. He thinks we should look at something non-traditional, such as a $1 million tax on each gallon of fresh water taken from the natural system. That would raise more than enough money and also raise people's consciousness — like forcing drivers to pay tolls, rather than funding roads or bridges through general taxation.

The other panelists maintained that it's crucial to figure out what must be done before we ask people for money to do it. They pointed to Proposition 1 as proof that people vote no if they don't know what they're being asked to pay for. Their idea is to define the problems, define solutions, and only then ask people for money. One City Club audience member with a long memory of Puget Sound issues and perhaps a touch of cynicism said she grew impatient with the idea that we don't know what has to be done. We've known it for years, she said; we just haven't done it.

That has been the Partnership's approach all along. First, it produces an "Action Agenda" that lays out where we are, where we want to go, and how we want to get there. Then it raises billions for the journey. The Action Agenda is due in September. A couple of speakers agreed that a September deadline would be hard to meet. Mike Sato of People for Puget Sound said that it was crucial to meet the deadline: without the agenda, everything else falls by the wayside, and the stated goal of restoring the Sound to health by 2020 — always a rather ambitious one — recedes into never-neverland.

However, the Agenda should make Puget Sound restoration a good deal more transparent than are similar restoration efforts aimed at Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. The Government Accountability Office pointed out that neither the Chesapeake Bay nor the Great Lakes restoration efforts had any credible way of measuring progress. City Club speakers pointed to the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes projects as proof that a restoration effort runs off the rails if no one can tell how well it's doing.

Putting aside the issue of whether or not we should now know what the problems are, the real question is: What are we aiming for? The answer isn't clear. Until the Action Agenda is finished, there is no clear definition of success. Dicks and other speakers at the City Club luncheon made that clear. Gregoire has talked about a Sound that's "fishable, diggable, and swimmable" — which answers the hypothetical voter's basic question, "What's in it for me?" — but the Sound is all of those things right now. (To give just one example: I swim in the cold water of Quartermaster Harbor every summer, and when the salmon are running, the ferries have to run a gauntlet of fishermen in small boats.)

Most concede that the Sound will look healthy no matter what. That is, it will look healthy under any circumstance but a major oil spill. The glittering surface conceals more than it reveals. No one can tell what's there just by looking. In fact, surveys show that most people think the Sound is in great shape right now. Why should they pay to make it better?

Gregoire and others say we have to educate people on the state of the Sound and to build a restoration program from the bottom up, because doing it from the top down clearly hasn't worked. One might argue — as some do — that we haven't really tried very hard to make the old top-down models work, but the real message is that without a change in culture, we won't restore the Sound, no matter how much we spend. This raises another potential marketing problem: If what we really need is a cultural change, why are you asking for all that money? The inconvenient fact seems to be that while substantial public investment won't suffice, it will be necessary. But will there ever be a good time to pass the hat?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.