For Gregoire, all the highway news is bad news

Two big unresolved transportation issues are back in the public's eye, reminding voters of the governor's biggest failure.
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Two big unresolved transportation issues are back in the public's eye, reminding voters of the governor's biggest failure.

A one-click slip on the Guvometer for Gov. Chris Gregoire, based on new profile for one of her vulnerabilities: too little progress in resolving big highway issues. Yesterday's debate seems to have been a reprise of the Rossi-Gregoire smackdown, though it didn't help the governor to be in front of a Rossi-friendly, pro-business crowd. She also was driven further into the trap of pledging no new taxes "in tough economic times." (Note the escape clause.)

The highway issue came up in two ways this week. One was the emergence of Speaker Frank Chopp's plan for an elevated highway structure for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which put that political hot potato back in the public arena. It's clear there's no consensus on a solution and probably not enough money. All stories about the Viaduct just underscore how the governor has not found a solution. Some Democrats were privately furious at Chopp for bringing up his plan amid the election. But the Viaduct discussion also may draw attention to Rossi's preferred plan, a deep bored tunnel, which would require tolls and probably private funding — and may therefore be another non-starter.

The other bit of bad news for Gregoire comes from the Columbia River, where plans for a $4 billion new Interstate 5 bridge to Portland, key to easing commuting woes for Clark County, are running into a federal brick wall, according to The Oregonian. That makes three critical transportation links in Washington that are stalled, short of money, and mired in local political debates: the Viaduct, the Columbia I-5 bridge, and Lake Washington's Highway 520 floating bridge.

Part of the political context is that the region, with developers and contractors suddenly starved for loans to build anything, will be under huge pressure for big public projects, like these roadways. Gregoire keeps hoping the funding will be energy-enlightened, such as tolls and demand-management devices, if not a carbon tax. Rossi offers a quick-fix — basically taking the money out the the General Fund and squeezing social spending. Rossi's approach is simple and catchy and appealing, even though it's also politically implausible.

Gregoire's approach is modern and rational, but it isn't helped by the very visible evidence that she has made little progress in the past four years. Further, she has been driven into opposing any tax increases, some of which are necessary if these long-stalled mega-projects are ever going to be built. Gregoire hasn't built big new bridges, but she has built herself a box.


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