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Leadership too late

"After 105 days of a regular legislative session and into the second week of the first special session, our folks in Olympia have finally staggered to the starting line on improving the state's increasingly dysfunctional transportation system.Gov. Locke has proposed a revenue package that would boost the gas tax by 7 cents a gallon; levy an excise tax on auto sales; and increase fees on commercial vehicles. Estimates are that the plan would raise some $9 billion over the next 10 years, to be matched by another $9 billion-plus raised on a regional basis.Predictably, Locke's proposal has drawn flak from all sides.Tim Eyman blusters that Olympia still isn't getting the message - his - about the need to reduce taxes, continuing to ignore the inconvenient fact that the services people demand cost money.State Sen. Tim Sheldon makes the parochial complaint that his South Kitsap/Mason County constituents would be disproportionately burdened by a gas-tax increase because they drive farther - failing to grasp that heavy users of the highway system should pay more than others. Democrats Betti Sheldon in the Senate and Phil Rockefeller in the House worry that the proposal does too little for the ferry system.We find ourselves fairly firmly in the does too little camp. Preferring that Bainbridge not become the doorstep to the entire West Sound, we like the idea of fast foot-ferry service between Kingston and downtown Seattle - which the Locke proposal sidesteps. Nor does his program address the question of finding a predictable, dedicated revenue stream for ferry funding, to replace the revenues lost from repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax by the voters and the Legislature. Despite those concerns with specifics, though, we think the governor did us a service simply by making the proposal. Yes, it's a target, but it provides a starting point for debate.As the Legislature has amply demonstrated, abstract debates about the state's need for transportation improvements go nowhere. The action doesn't really begin until something concrete with a dollar figure attached is on the table - where it can be chiseled, pounded, molded, massaged and generally tinkered with until, one hopes, a plan emerges.Although we commend Locke for providing a plan, why, we ask, did it take so long? Had he acted before the session began, the difficult transportation funding debate would be much farther along today. Similarly, Locke managed to untie the knot that delayed ferry fare increases, finding $50,000 to fund an impact study that had left necessary legislation stalled. But the delay cost the ferry system some $730,000. Again, we're glad the problem was resolved, but it was six weeks late.As his re-election victory demonstrated, the governor has considerable political capital. But like any other currency, such capital does no one any good if it's only collected and never spent. As Sen. Betti Sheldon said this week, Putting a specific proposal on the table and saying 'this is where I stand' is what leadership is all about.Later may be better than never. But sooner is better than later. If Locke wants action, he needs to take the lead. "

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