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WA Policy Center writers: Roads, not light rail, need investments

(Sound Transit)

When a Seattle Times reader asked why Sound Transit light rail projects can’t get finished sooner, the newspaper analyzed the question and concluded that they could be completed quicker, but that more funds would likely be needed to accomplish this.

“I wasn’t surprised that the answer was, ‘Give Sound Transit more money’ — that’s always the answer,” said Mariya Frost, director of the Washington Policy Center’s Coles Center for Transportation.

In response, Frost recently penned a piece for WPC’s transit blog saying that the real question should not be how the light rail projects can be done sooner, but whether or not they can be done on time.

With the Eastside, Federal Way, and Lynnwood extensions late and over budget, she noted “there’s absolutely no reason to trust that they could meet a faster deadline.”

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Sen. Mark Harmsworth (R-Mill Creek) — who, as a WPC research fellow, also writes for the think tank’s blog — put the cost in perspective when comparing a historic event that will turn 50 this week.

“It only cost us $25.4 billion to get to the moon, and it’s costing us $100 billion to get to Everett,” he said. “This agency is out-of-control, it doesn’t know how to control its costs, and it has no accountability to the public at all.”

According to Frost’s piece, Sound Transit is hoping to increase the funds it receives from the federal fuel tax, a tax that has cost American drivers 18.4 cents per gallon since the early 1990s. Twenty percent of the federal fuel tax, she said, is diverted to transit projects around the country.

Frost suspects that Sound Transit also has its eye on the state gas tax, which costs Washingtonians 49 cents at the pump.

“If Sound Transit wants to go after federal fuel tax money, then it’s a no-brainer that probably on their wish list is some way where they can secure fuel tax dollars at the state level,” she said.

This would not be possible according to the Washington State Constitution, since the 18th amendment requires that taxes on fuel be “used exclusively for highway purposes.”

However, a possible road usage charge being looked at by the state — which would charge drivers for each mile they drive via a transponder in cars — could divert money to transit projects rather than roads, Frost said.

It is the state’s highways rather than light rail that could do more to improve congestion with extra funds, the WPC writers argue.

In a piece that Harmsworth wrote for the Washington Policy Center, he referenced a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research stating that improving roads reduces the cost of products by hundreds of millions of dollars. Virtually everything that we buy, he said, has to be transported via freight, and those transportation costs are then passed on to the consumers.

“We can improve our economic situation and we can actually save money, because we can now move freight more quickly between our cities … with a relatively minimal amount of additional capacity,” Harmsworth said.

Focusing on improving roads will give “huge economic benefits,” as well as will provide jobs, he added.

“This idea that we need to focus on building light rail faster — I think it’s a complete distraction, because it has nothing to do with the 97 percent of people who are looking for some kind of relief and improved mobility,” Frost said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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