Thursday, January 24, 2008

Snohomish Looking at TB District, Too

Officials in Snohomish County are also considering creation of a countywide Transportation Benefit District. Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall has joined the City of Everett in asking Snohomish County officials to create the special taxing district to fix their area's most congested roads; the cities of Lynnwood, Mukilteo, Mill Creek and Mountlake Terrace are siad to be considering following suit.

Snohomish County officlas think that the new tax package would have to be smaller than the failed $2 billion RTID proposal--which proved to be too big for voters to swallow--but the project list would likely would lean heavily on the RTID proposal that identified which projects were most important and how much they would cost.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

RAMP Tracking Several Bills in Play in Olympia

During this second week of the short 2008 Session, several bills are being tracked by RAMP participants for their potential to either hinder or support Pierce County's transportation objectives:

  • SB 6748, submitted by WA Senator Jim Kastama upon RAMP's request, will make changes in the current transportation benefit district (TBD) legislation to make that potential funding mechanism more viable;
  • SB 6754, introduced by Senator Mary Margaret Haugen at request of Governor Christine Gregoire, proposes a financing plan for replacing the SR-520 bridge;
  • SB 6771, co-sponsored by Senator Haugen and WA Representative Ed Murray, would eliminate the RTID authority; while it's hard to argue against elimination, there is no rush to do this--RAMP supports keeping every option available, at least for now;
  • SB 6772, co-sponsored by Haugen with Eastside Senator Rodney Tom, proposes radical changes in regional transportation governance as recommended by the Regional Transportation Commission; RAMP opposes these changes.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Commission Reports $225B Needed for Federal Highways

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, created by Congress in 2005 under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), released its final report on Tuesday. The report suggests an annual investment of at least $225 billion for the next 50 years to upgrade to an advanced surface transportation system.

The bipartisan Commission's 12 members representing federal/state/local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, transportation-related industries, and associations has been tasked to examine not only the current condition and future needs of the nation's surface transportation system, but also to consider short and long-term alternatives to replace or supplement fuel tax as the principal revenue source for highway improvements.

At the heart of the Commission's recommendations is a plan to replace more than 100 current programs with 10 outcome-based initiatives with oversight from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Commission also recommends an array of new revenue sources, including:
  • An increase in the federal gas tax by 5-8 cents per gallon per year for a five-year period (25-40 cents total);
  • A vehicle miles traveled fee;
  • New tolls;
  • Peak-hour "congestion pricing" on federal-aid highways in major metropolitan areas;
  • A new freight fee for freight projects; and
  • Ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements.

Need for Cross-Base Highway Aired by KIRO

KIRO 7 Eyewitness News South Sound Bureau Chief Richard Thompson produced a balanced piece on the Cross-Base Highway that aired this past Wednesday evening. Entitled "Supporters, Opponents At Odds Over Cross-Base Highway," the brief report included clips featuring RAMP Co-Chair John Ladenburg and coalition staff.

KIRO's viewers were presented with the following information:
  • Supporters say the project would ease congestion and help business in Pierce County;
  • Opponents say it will threaten wildlife and destroy an already fragile ecosystem on Fort Lewis;
  • Commuters will be happy to learn construction will soon begin on the project's first phase;
  • The project will never be finished unless voters approve another $400 million to finish the job.
The report also announced that RAMP is considering a new transportation package for Pierce County voters that would include the Cross-Base Highway--pursued separately, teamed up again with King and Snohomish counties, or working with Thurston and Kitsap counties.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What is a Transportation Benefit District (TBD)?

Following the failure of Proposition 1, regional leaders are reviewing their options for funding badly needed transportation improvements. Discussions with RAMP participatns both in and out of the monthly meetings suggest that RTID is dead as the funding vehicle of choice, and the group consensus may be forming around a transportation benefit district as its most likely successor.

A transportation benefit district (TBD) is an independent taxing district created solely to acquire, construct, improve, provide and fund transportaiton improvements within a defined area. That area can be defined with much more flexibility than RTID conferred--it can encompass a broad array of counties, cities, and port or transit districts depending upon each jurisdiction's willingness to enter an interlocal agreement.

A TBD also has access to a variety of funding mechanisms. Two of these--setting an annual vehicle fee and levying transportation impact fees--do not require voer approval, although they are subject to toher condidions. TBDs can also ask voters to approve several new revenue sources, including increased property taxes, sales tax, annual vehicle fees and tolls.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Olympia Report: Prospective

The 2008 Legislature goes to work today in Olympia. What action should be expected on transportation issues from lawmakers over the course of this short (60-day) Session in an election year?

Members of RAMP's staff team (pulled from the Chamber, Pierce County, Port of Tacoma, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit) are in Olympia today to continue advocacy for the group's recently-adopted Legislative agenda. They will continue lobbying in pursuit of some technical changes to the current law governing transportation benefit districts, as well as for funding--keeping previously-committed funds and getting more funding--for priority projects.

The team expects only a couple of major transportation decisions to be made by state lawmakers this Session--and these two only because Governor Christine Gregoire has laid a great deal of her political capital on the line:
  • Developing a plan for funding the $2 billion shortfall for the SR-520 bridge replacement across Lake Washington;
  • Crafting a highway tolling bill that will set up the framework for how tolls will be collected.

As reported here previously, substantial action on regional transportation governance is likely to lay dormant this Session.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

RAMP Adopts 2008 Legislative Priorities

Yesterday, RAMP's participants adopted their agenda for action on transportation issues in the 2008 Legislature, but the most significant activity this year may very well be outside that arena.

Following an exchange with King County leaders over their proposal to overhaul regional transportation governance, RAMP participants appeared more committed than ever to trying to establish a transportation benefit district (TBD), either alone or with another county, to pay for major highway projects. The Legislative package finalized yesterday states categorically that "RAMP believes that a Transportation Benefit District is the most viable vehicle for advancing towards the next voter-approved funding package" because it's a more flexible alternative to a new Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) and one which may not be saddled with the baggage of failure last November.

Despite some initial support from Governor Christine Gregoire and key state lawmakers, most handicappers for the upcoming Session see governance as a non-starter--there's too much opposition from Pierce County and, well, pretty much every place outside of King County, and this Session is too short to overcome that opposition. RAMP seeks some minor changes to the current TBD legislation--granting districts authority allotted to the Regional Transportation Investment District, as well as removing the ten-year limitation on voter-approved tax collections--but even that may be too much to expect this year.

The real action in 2008 is likely to be formation of a TBD either for Pierce County alone or for Pierce in tandem with one or more neighboring counties. Representatives from Thurston County are scheduled on RAMP's February agenda to make the pitch for alignment with their jurisdiction.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The RTC Comes To Town (Reprise')

T-Mobile founder John Stanton and former WA Transportation Secretary Doug McDonald met with RAMP today to seek Pierce County support for reform of regional transportation governance. Their reception by the group was polite but less than encouraging.

Stanton shared his belief that the failure of Proposition 1 was due, in part, to voter fatigue following a series of large, uncoordinated funding requests. He reiterated recommendations of the Regional Transportation Commission, which he chaired, calling for an overhaul of transportation agencies--a move that he feels will lead to more coordination, higher public credibility, and better leveraging of extant transportation funding sources.

McDonald suggested that sub-area equity--a pillar of RAMP's Legislative priorities now for several years--might work against Pierce County's goals. "You won't be able to finance mega projects like SR-167," he opined, "without tapping funding from the entire region." He said that the recent failure of Proposition 1 "convinced him" that he should join Stanton and others in seeking a major new agency that would replace groups like Sound Transit and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

RAMP's participants weren't buying. WA Senator Jim Kastama (who was a leader in crafting the Nickel Package as well as the RTID legislation) was quick to disagree. He claimed that King County did a much poorer job of prioritizing investments for the Roads & Transit package, and that this weakness would be magnified in a proportionally representative body--the entity proposed by the RTC.

Following a robust discussion, participants moved forward to adopt RAMP's 2008 Legislative Priorities. At the forefront was the statement that "a Transportation Benefit District is the most viable vehicle for advancing towards the next voter-approved funding package, whether Pierce County moves forward unilaterally or in cooperation with other counties."

Friday, January 04, 2008

Sound Transit's Accountability Stands the Test (Again)

One of the major refrains from those who opposed November's Roads & Transit package was that of the "lack of accountability" from regional transportation providers--Sound Transit in particular--yet the latest state audit of the transit agency, which was released Thursday, was very clean.

The audit looked at how Sound Transit has complied with state laws and regulations as well as its own policies and procedures. The audit also examined management’s accountability for public resources.

The state accountability audit is one of several outside independent audits of Sound Transit each year. In addition to the State Auditor’s annual review, the agency contracts with an independent auditor for a yearly financial audit; since the agency receives federal funding on its projects, the independent auditor performs a Single Audit after which the Federal Transit Administration conducts quarterly reviews. Last year, Sound Transit received its first performance audit by the state under I-900, in which the agency also received high marks.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Demand Management to Get New Push in 2008

In order to address growing congestion across the region, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has established a triad of key congestion management objectives:

  • Managing demand (i.e., building HOV lanes, supporting Commute Trip Reduction efforts, and using technology to offer more real-time information);
  • Operating efficiently (i.e., installing ramp meters, synchronizing traffic signals, and deploying incident response units);
  • Adding capacity (i.e., completing capital projects).
Managing demand will get renewed emphasis in Pierce County in 2008, as City of Tacoma and transit officials are planning to launch a new push to get workers out of their solo drives and into commute alternatives. Local business leaders are also coming to the table with a new program--Destination Downtown Door-to-Door (DDDD or "D to the fourth")--which takes its name both from Tacoma’s current urban center plan (“Destination Downtown”) and from the observation by City Manager Eric Anderson that an effective transportation demand program will provide downtown stakeholders with a variety of travel choices “from door to door.”

Both public and private transportation leaders are keen to implement successful strategies to manage transportation demand already tested in Portland and Seattle. Funding for these new programs is derived from WSDOT's Trip Reduction Performance Program (TRPP).