TOPICS > Nation

Roads, Rails and Rejection

November 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


LEE HOCHBERG: All over the country, as cities have spread to suburbs and suburbs to more suburbs, transportation issues are stirring up debate. In the recent election, there were 41 ballot measures in the recent elections, representing a potential investment of as much as $117 billion. Election Day in Seattle, was the typical muddle on the region’s freeways.

SPOKESMAN: Well, we have a lot of slow traffic. Boy, the northbound backup still starting right around Alboro up past I-90. Going to take you about 35 minutes to get through that mess.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Seattle area has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. In the election, three ballot initiatives offered different approaches to the problem.

SPOKESMAN: It’s bumper to bumper in Renton.

LEE HOCHBERG: Initiative R-51 was a measure to boost the state gasoline tax nine cents per gallon, raising almost $8 billion for highway and transit projects. It was rejected overwhelmingly. Initiative 767 was a statewide anti-tax protest, cutting transportation funding by slashing the amount car owners pay to license their cars. Voters passed that measure. So there were two apparent anti- transportation votes. But City of Seattle voters, asked to pony up $1.7 billion to build a 14-mile monorail line, approved that measure by a sliver-thin 800 votes. So that’s one mandate– a narrow one– for transportation.

SPOKESMAN: With 51 not just failing, 51 getting trounced, 776 passes, that’s going to strip a bunch of other transportation funding.

LEE HOCHBERG: In a state where transportation generally is considered the top public policy problem, citizens and civic leaders now are trying to make sense of the results.

SPOKESMAN: Where do we go from here amidst all of this chaos?

SPOKESMAN: Obviously we’re very, very disappointed.

LEE HOCHBERG: Governor Gary Locke had supported the gas tax as crucial to repair and expand state highways. Voters and the state legislature three years ago had stripped billions of dollars away from transportation.

SPOKESMAN: Transportation remains a critical issue for our state. It simply cannot be ignored.

LEE HOCHBERG: Opponents of 51, a low-funded and unlikely coalition of anti-tax conservatives and liberal environmentalists, said the voters sent a clear message in opposing a road-heavy measure. Aaron Ostrom of the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Washington.

AARON OSTROM: The build-our-way-out-of-it approach to traffic doesn’t work, and the public I think actually recognizes that. People are saying in large majorities, "we can’t build our way out of it. We have to improve transportation choices if we’re really going to deal with traffic."

LEE HOCHBERG: Yet despite the environmentalists’ protest, measure 51 in some ways was pro- environment. It included $1.2 billion for mass transit, the most the state has ever dedicated for that purpose. Democratic consultant Cathy Allen says there’s a simpler explanation for the vote, in a state with the country’s highest unemployment rate.

CATHY ALLEN: Perhaps what we have to learn is don’t go asking the public for more when all they see is less. When they see less money, less jobs, the fact is that this is no time to give the public a new bill.

LEE HOCHBERG: Allen says the voters’ second anti- transportation vote, reducing the price of car tabs and therefore slashing state transportation funding, was also a simple pocketbook vote.

CATHY ALLEN: This was a simple matter of reading the ballot title and deciding, "do I want to spend less? Yeah, I want to spend less." Fine.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nationwide as well, many voters rejected proposed funding measures for transportation. But a Seattle Times poll showed there was more to the voters’ message. It found many Washingtonians were willing to pay a higher gasoline tax, but were unconvinced that it would be spent wisely. Measure 51, for example, would have raised money to replace Seattle’s heavily traveled but earthquake-vulnerable viaduct along its waterfront, but not enough money to finish the job. Many voters feared they’d get stuck paying more later.

JIM IMPETT: I’m doubtful about the way the money is allocated. Nothing seems to be… going to be finished. They’re going to study here and study there.

LEE HOCHBERG: Initiative 51’s leaders say their statewide measure also may have been too broad, including transit for Seattle, highways for auto- dependent suburbs, and projects for the largely rural rest of the state. For every voter, there was something to be built elsewhere to vote against. State Transportation Commission Chairman Aubrey Davis.

AUBREY DAVIS: If you have a vote on something statewide, you have to appeal to an awful lot, a variety of interests. By the time you do that, you’re then accused of, "well, nothing for me in it," which is what some people were saying. I don’t see that "nothing you’re going do is going to help me. Why should I vote for it?"

LEE HOCHBERG: With all of the wariness about paying taxes and how they’re spent, how then did Seattle’s monorail get approved? Even if it was by just a few hundred votes, it’s a project that will build a single line connecting only one-quarter of the city to downtown. Co-sponsor Peter Sherwin suggests the answer may be that very narrowness of its mission.

PETER SHERWIN: It was very clear that that’s what it was. One phase, 14 miles, that would be completed around 2007, 2009. There was one specific tax, it was dedicated to that.

LEE HOCHBERG: It helped that Seattle has a happy history with monorail, from it’s 40-year experience with a short route built for the city’s 1962 World’s Fair. Technology captured enough voters’ imaginations to carry the initiative.

SANDRA FISCHER: It is kind of cool, and I think that you can build those easily in cities, you can put them on freeways, you can put them all over the place. And it’s kind of cool.

PETER SHERWIN: You can’t get a better candidate than the monorail. The monorail is great. People know it, they like it, it’s fun. It’s fun to ride. There’s nothing wrong with transit, public transit, being fun.

SPOKESPERSON: Whoo! Vote yes for the monorail!

LEE HOCHBERG: And the monorail campaign had a grassroots origin that may have helped it eke out a victory. The idea for the project came from a Seattle cabdriver. It was approved by voter initiative three years ago, but ignored by the city council until another voter initiative forced the issue.

CATHY ALLEN: The monorail had a story. Where everyone else had facts and figures and whatever, they had a story: A taxicab driver with a lot of folks who wanted to beat city hall and build a train that could. And frankly, I think that’s what people bought into.

LEE HOCHBERG: But monorail opponents say its narrow victory hardly amounts to people buying into transportation, and to transportation planners, the notion that mass transit needs to be packaged into a story to get public approval is alarming.

AUBREY DAVIS: Well, the monorail… we can’t fund our highway system the way that… if we do one highway at a time, for one neighborhood at a time, we could probably get some money for that. But I don’t know how we’d build a state system that way. I don’t think that that process isn’t going to work.

LEE HOCHBERG: Transportation official Davis fears the Washington State election and what it showed about what voters will approve, portend bad things for the nation’s future transportation needs.

AUBREY DAVIS: Does it mean everybody has to have peanut butter so everybody gets a piece of everything before they vote yes? I do not think our society can succeed if we do that. If we have to do only what the voters will vote for for taxes, it will be very few things that happen, I think.

LEE HOCHBERG: Washington’s governor says he plans to take the voters’ messages back to the state legislature and try again to get it to craft a transportation plan.