R-51: It's better than nothing

We admit it: We are less than enamored of Referendum 51, the $7.7 billion transportation measure on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot.

We agree with those who say you can’t build your way out of congestion, because new roadways simply encourage more driving. We agree that regional mass transit is preferable to new roads. We agree that R-51 brings regressive taxation, financed as it is by a gasoline tax that will hit low-income drivers proportionately harder than others. And we agree that the $7.7 billion price tag is only a beginning, that R-51 provides just enough money to start some of the major statewide projects, and that completing those efforts is going to up total costs.

Frankly, there’s a lot to dislike about R-51. But lacking any clear or imminent alternatives to solve the state’s oft-cited transportation woes, it looks like R-51 or nothing. We urge islanders to give a “Yes” vote on the measure.

Some argue that the Legislature should try a package concentrating money on larger projects, notably the Seattle Viaduct, with greater emphasis on mass-transit. While that might garner votes in the more progressive Puget Sound precincts, proponents seem to forget that any package first needs approval in a legislature often divided along regional lines. And given the delusion by voters on the far side of the mountains that Eastern Washington taxes somehow subsidize Seattle, we wouldn’t give such a plan much chance at the polls.

Our fear is that if R-51 fails, the Legislature will simply wash its hands of transportation for the next few sessions, and say that while voters may yip about congestion, they don’t care enough to pay for solutions. It would be hard to disagree.

And the perception that we won’t help ourselves could spread beyond Olympia. We remember U.S. Sen. Patty Murray telling us last year that, as head of the Senate Transportation Committee, she could be in a powerful position to bring federal dollars to her home state. But because most programs require some percentage of state match, it’s hard to get federal money for a state that won’t put up at least some its own funds.

The least persuasive argument we’ve heard against R-51 is the notion that the measure contains nothing for Bainbridge Island. It is true the measure does not earmark any dollars for roads on the island, but it does reserve money for roads that islanders frequently use, including the highway through Poulsbo.

And really, what highway project does Bainbridge want? Recent history suggests the answer is “None.” What we want, if anything, is less traffic, particularly cars crossing the island to go elsewhere. And R-51 does provide meaningful help along those lines by earmarking money for passenger-only ferry service from Kingston to downtown Seattle, something islanders have long called for.

R-51 isn’t an ideal plan, but it wasn’t put together by planners. It was put together by politicians, and as such represents a series of compromises. It’s promises a few goodies to everyone in the state.

It’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best transportation package we’re going to see for years. If the choice is that or nothing, we’ll take it.

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