Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Locke rushes to the front of the parade

Former governor Gary Locke is showing some real appetite for public service. He's taken the transportation bull by the horns and is organizing a pre-election "aggressive public education effort ... before handing matters off to the actual ballot campaign." This is re the Fall 2007 package of Puget Sound projects.

Sitting here in the North End of Tacoma, I have a great view of our transportation dollars at work. And I have discovered a key that will unlock a voting bloc long opposed to transportation funding. But before I reveal that key, I should warn you, there are a few cautionary notes at the end, about the path Locke has set out upon and overall transportation strategy.

At the intersection of I-5 and US 16 a "Nickel" project is transforming one of the worst (if not the worst) interchanges in the state into a working piece of infrastructure -- in full view of 120,000 motorists a day. It's a poster project for DOT. Then, only a few miles down the road, a brand new span is crossing the Tacoma Narrows onto the Key Peninsula. It is from across that new bridge, to open in the fall, that the key to the election can be seen, standing and waving.

Property values.

They are skyrocketing, as speculation moves in even before the bridge deck arrives from South Korea. Mind you, neither a new 520 bridge, nor increased rail, nor a solution to the Alaskan Way viaduct problem will inflate already inflated home and property values but transportationn improvements like those may be the only way to keep them from crumbling.

We have predicted here that the peak of the housing boom (or bubble) has arrived, and a long, perhaps slow, steady decline in home values will begin this year. That drop in values will begin in the suburbs, particularly in those not well served by transit and roads, in the house plantations.

If Locke and his cronies can point to Gig Harbor as an object lesson, he can appeal to the self-interest of the most recalcitrant group of voters: the anti-tax property owners in the exurban and rural areas.

Transportation improvements can keep home values up. [Dropping values will not mean dropping taxes, please note. The revenue from property taxes on existing construction is relatively constant. Dropping values only mean the homeowner is on the hook for any equity overhang, plus if this is his/her "retirement account," he/she may be doomed to watch it shrink as the need for it draws nearer.]

The message to property owners: Can you afford NOT to increase transit and transportation access?

So much for the key to victory. Now for the cautionary notes:
  • Locke has assembled a team, including John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur, who have no credentials in public service. It reminds me of Locke recruiting Indian-fighter Slade Gorton to lead his last transportation campaign to defeat.
  • Second, the opening salvo in this current effort came in the form of an e-mail to deep pockets and corporate leaders. Elitism does not sell well to conservatives, and progressives distrust corporate interests. A message of "We know best" and "It's for your own good" will just cause voters to change the channel.
  • Third, heavy investment in new roads is no good. Replacing deteriorating or outdated structures, sure. Maintain current surfaces, yes. But the roads/cars/gasoline technology has to change. Now it is time for rail/transit/alternatives.
  • And lastly (and I know I'm preaching to an empty choir loft), transportation needs to be funded by gas taxes, not sales taxes. What is the rationale for allowing Big Oil to reap Big Profit while we dump more burden onto the sales tax? High prices are changing the American passenger car fleet. High prices are driving demand for alternatives. The problem with price is not level, but who gets the revenue.
A progressive tax on gasoline above $2 per gallon should be immediately instituted. It doesn't really matter where the money goes. At the federal level, it could go right into lower withholding rates and back into the pockets of Americans. (No, this is not a repeat of the $100 buy-off.)

At the state level, the absurd reality is that higher prices mean lower state revenues from the gas tax. Why? Because it is levied on a per gallon basis. When prices go up, consumption goes down. Lower consumption means lower revenue. I have argued at length for the retail sales tax to be applied to gasoline. (I think that's when the choir left.) But to subsidize it like food and drugs is patently absurd.

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