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Washington initiative could threaten road-building

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times

SEATTLE – King County Executive Ron Sims has responded to Initiative 776's rollback of vehicle-license fees by proposing a halt to road-building projects intended to reduce congestion.

Unless the county finds a new source of money, some of its biggest projects – including a $39 million widening of Novelty Hill Road east of Redmond — could be put on hold indefinitely.

Other projects in jeopardy include improvements to Woodinville-Duvall Road and to Benson and Carr roads between Renton and Kent. Projects already under way would be exempt from the moratorium.

In a letter sent Monday to Metropolitan King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, Sims said I-776 will have "a staggering impact" on the county's ability to build roads.

Voters passed anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman's initiative in 2002, rolling back vehicle-license fees. But the county only began to feel its impact in October, when the state Supreme Court upheld elimination of the county's $15-per-vehicle fee.

"We said it would be ugly, and it's ugly," Ryan Bayne, Sims' liaison to the County Council, said yesterday.

The County Council will decide on Sims' proposed changes to the county's six-year roads plan.

Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives said Sims' proposal continues the county's long failure to build the roads needed to support development approved by the county.

"I think he has to stop approving developments," Ives said. "You wouldn't open a building without water and sewer. Why are we allowing buildings to open up without infrastructure for mobility? Development should go in cities, where there is already infrastructure."

The loss of revenue from vehicle-license fees is costing King County $4.8 million a year – all of which went toward road projects – and the county must refund vehicle owners the fees they paid last year.

But the county's total loss is much larger – $111.6 million over six years – because of what one county transportation official called "a snowball effect."

Because the county must match developer fees and federal and state grants on road projects, the county won't get an estimated $17 million in those grants and fees between 2004 and 2009.

And reduced revenues mean the county has less money to make payments on $80 million in road bonds it planned to sell this year and in 2006. The county plans to reduce the bond sale to $19 million. Its ability to finance bonds will be further reduced by the road-levy revenues it will lose if cities annex urban unincorporated areas, as Sims has urged them to do.

The total estimated revenue loss of $111.6 million represents 28 percent of the $400 million capital-improvement program for 2004-09.

Roads Division Director Linda Dougherty said the sale of $40 million in bonds in 2002 jump-started a number of road projects. "We've been able to really demonstrate we're able to get these large-capital projects designed and built in short order. ... It was exciting that we were getting these projects built. Then ouch!"

Sims told the County Council he decided to defer "road-capacity projects" as an alternative to cutting projects needed to improve safety or maintain the county's investment in existing roads. Safety and maintenance are the top priorities in the revised capital improvement plan Sims sent to the County Council.

That plan would reduce total road projects by $11.2 million this year. After the Supreme Court upheld I-776's ban on collection of the vehicle fee, Sims told the County Council he would submit a revised roads plan.

Sims told the County Council on Monday he has asked the county Department of Transportation to make recommendations for replacing the lost vehicle-license revenue. Dougherty said transportation officials have just begun to consider options.

Among sources available to the county are increases in the sales tax, property tax or gas tax, which voters would have to approve.

"I continue to strongly support the need to solve our traffic-congestion problems now, not 10 or 20 years from now," Sims wrote in his letter to the council. "I sincerely hope this drastic downsizing of our roads CIP (capital-improvement program) is only temporary."

Sims' proposed deferral of work on the long-awaited improvements to Novelty Hill Road east of Redmond drew concern from the developers and opponents of the massive Redmond Ridge and Trilogy urban villages.

Bill Boucher, vice president of communications for Weyerhaeuser subsidiary Quadrant, which is developing Redmond Ridge and co-developing Trilogy, said the company has spent $18 million to improve Novelty Hill Road and other arterials.

"The company clearly has done its share, lived up to its obligations, its timelines, and will continue to do so," Boucher said. Now, he said, it's the county's turn.

Though the county's planned improvements to Novelty Hill Road are estimated at $39 million, Dougherty said, planners have determined the actual cost will be substantially higher – probably around $60 million.

Dougherty said the improvements might be done in phases, and the county might improve other arterials, diverting some traffic to Union Hill Road.

If Sims seeks a tax increase to handle traffic generated by Redmond Ridge and Trilogy, which together will add 3,750 homes, voters won't be happy, said Joseph Elfelt, president of Friends of the Law, a group that has challenged the developments in court.

"When they go to the voters and say, 'Hey, we want you to raise your taxes to build this road for Weyerhaeuser,' it's not a modest sum," Elfelt said.

County Councilman Steve Hammond, R-Enumclaw, said he hadn't read Sims' message to the County Council but was concerned about the possibility of a moratorium on projects to ease congestion.

One of Hammond's priorities has been to increase road capacity. Despite the county's budget difficulties, he said, "I would rather not give up the fight."