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Originally published Wednesday, November 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Defeat of Initiative 912 doesn't end transportation debate

Well, the battle over Initiative 912 is finished and the voters have spoken. But is that the end of the debate over transportation in this...

Special to The Times

Well, the battle over Initiative 912 is finished and the voters have spoken. But is that the end of the debate over transportation in this state? Not likely.

I can honestly say that the elation I-912 supporters felt after the historic qualification of the measure in July was matched, at the opposite end of the spectrum, by the deep disappointment we experienced after the tax-cut initiative's failure at the polls on Nov. 8.

And, while I believe that there was no significant statewide shift in voters' attitudes about taxes, it is apparent that the folks in King and Snohomish counties helped provide the margin that sank I-912. In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that two of the most populous counties — that also suffer some of the worst traffic congestion — would be willing to hold their nose and vote for a new tax in the desperate hope that things might get better.

So will they? That depends on what happens next.

Over the next few months, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will, perhaps, begin work on some of the most important projects that were outlined on its wish list. And while it will be some time before we are able to judge those results, there are some important questions that need to be asked right now.

Will WSDOT be able to rebuild trust with voters? Long criticized by many (including me) for an anti-roads bias and a lazy eye when it comes to accountability, the department now has the chance to show that it can listen to its critics and make a few serious changes. A simple admission that we need more general-purpose-lane miles on our roads and freeways to ease traffic congestion would be a nice start.

Where will we find independent facts? One of the unfortunate realities surrounding our statewide transportation policy is the dearth of real, unvarnished information surrounding transportation spending.

During the campaign, supporters of I-912 were regularly accused of using hollow rhetoric, while opponents cited WSDOT's own in-house information as the basis for their "facts." Even those in the media covering the issue were forced to sift through WSDOT press releases and Web sites as their primary source for information to include in their stories. That's hardly serving as an independent voice.

The fact is clear: There's just not much impartial information out there with which to judge the transportation department and its contractors. Now that they are embarking on a massive new spending program, it's needed more than ever. State Auditor Brian Sonntag's new performance-audits power should help. And so would a new watchdog organization.

What will Puget Sound voters authorize next year? With the Regional Transit Investment District (RTID) plan likely to be on the 2006 ballot, along with a request for more money from Sound Transit, next year's election ballot promises still more debate over transportation policy and the future of this region.

What will the same voters who turned down I-912 be asked to approve? Will it be a plan that addresses traffic concerns and lays new asphalt or will the bulk of the money be hijacked to pay for a pricey new tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct? The size, shape and price tag of the RTID/Sound Transit proposal will determine its own fate with the voters. Let's hope they do the right thing.

I don't believe the debate over transportation policy in this state has ended now that the election is over. Nor do I think that it should end. Instead, it's now time to start measuring results.

In the past, we've been told things were getting worse as a result of the passage of Initiative 695 and the defeat of Referendum 51. Now that gas taxes have been raised 14.5 cents a gallon and billions more will be flowing from the new diesel tax and new license and weight fees, we can see if things, instead, start to get better.

But, with news that an $800,000 bike lane in Moses Lake will be the first project built with the rescued tax, I won't hold my breath.

Brett Bader managed campaigns that defeated the Sound Transit light-rail proposal in 1995 and the Referendum 51 gas-tax increase in 2002. This year, he led the effort that qualified Initiative 912 for the ballot.

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