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Sunday, June 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
Are we taxed to death or taxed to congestion?


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'WE NEED a state income tax," a local politician said (again) last week.

No we don't. Those who want an income tax tend to be the tax collectors instead of the taxpayers. Odd that although we hear much about the need for a state income tax, I have yet to see a candidate for public office make it their campaign theme.

But we must admit we don't have enough money in the right places to do what needs to be done. Our tax system is topsy-turvy, coupled with taxpayer and voter skepticism that is armpit deep.

In the adjoining commentary by tax expert and law professor Hugh Spitzer, he argues the current system, in which cities gather revenue by inducing growth, is backwards. Spitzer's view — more articulate than this capsule version — leads inevitably to the conclusion that growth has been spurred by the need for tax revenue. That caused expansion and congestion in the urban cities.

And that led us along the path to where we are now, trying to pay for huge projects that are adaptations to growth rather than solutions.

That's why the fact that a regional transportation tax idea went into fibrillation this past week should cause us to pause and ask: What are we doing? If taxpayers, the business community and community leaders are unable to lead or be led, we are nibbling around the edges, one mega-project at a time instead of looking at connected solutions.

First, we can't get out of this transportation muddle without pouring more concrete. Tolls, HOV lanes, tunnels and bridges are all fine, but it comes back down to wheels on roads as the first priority. A child can look at the narrowing of three lanes to two at the eastern approach to the 520 bridge and understand the geometry of insufficient capacity.

Second, prove to voters everyone in authority understands the need for a tapestry of easily connected transit and roads. No sophisticated urban center, for example, should be guilty of building two, unrelated, expensive rail systems under two, separate local governments.

Currently, the price tag for neglect and congestion has reached an almost impossible summit of voter frustration and inadequate public financing. Consider the local dollar and where it would go.

From inside the failed politics of the regional transportation district came a series of ideas and lists that give us the outlines of what awaits this region. In a letter from five King County Democrats to Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, the billion-dollar march began.

No one has any idea how to pay for all the items on the list. Here're just a few, most of the bills coming due locally in anticipation of matching state dollars:

• I-405 and Highway 167 corridor, $2.4 billion;

• Alaskan Way Viaduct, $1 billion;

• Highway 520, $1 billion;

• Light rail: U-District to Sea-Tac Airport, $1.1 billion;

• Assorted other projects, $1.2 billion.

The fly in this apothecary jar of course is the $1.1 billion slated for light rail, which looks to me as if local taxpayers would be matching their own dollars twice.

The proposal was to pay for this through no increase in the gas tax (politicians can read the pump prices as well as anyone) but add to the license-tab price, an added light-rail sales tax, the general sales tax and a vehicle license fee of $75 a year to raise $6.7 billion in King County alone.

Never going to happen, at least not this year, and I doubt in spring of 2005. Maybe sometime in the future, the birds will sing and the next generation of elected leaders will agree on the shape of a map that defines and connects this region.

If there is something to be said for the past weeks and months of combative debate, disagreement and examination, it may be that some new ideas will emerge. Professor Spitzer's revelation of the way we construe our taxes goes to the heart of how we grow. Do we grow one city at a time as each place seeks the next car dealership, the next casino, the next mini-mall? Or do we grow together by connecting the dots.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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