In Our View: Paying for Roads, Bridges

No reasonable solution -- including tolls and taxes -- should be ruled out

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Here's quick advice for anyone who's looking for a no-tolls gubernatorial candidate: Don't hold your breath. In fact, don't even get your hopes up.Both of the presumptive finalists in the 2012 race for governor have expressed at least tolerant views about tolls as part of the overall strategy to pay for Washington's growing, long-neglected multibillion-dollar transportation needs.

Maybe you can find some no-tolls advocacy among the seven other gubernatorial candidates (sorry, perennial candidate Mike the Mover is running for senator this year). But there's scant indication that any dark-horse candidate can keep Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee from advancing past the Aug. 17 primary to the Nov. 6 election. And here's what they had to say last week about tolls:

McKenna, according to an Associated Press story, pointed out that tolls helped build many existing transportation facilities and will be necessary to rebuild those same sites, such as the state Highway 520 Bridge in Seattle. "User fees, in the form of tolls, will be in the mix for certain projects, no question about it," he noted. Many of McKenna's fellow Republicans will shriek in horror as he acknowledges tolls as necessary. But the current attorney general is a smart man. He knows that gas-tax revenue (which provides about two-thirds of the state's commitment to transportation funding) is projected to fall by $5 billion annually by 2023.

Inslee expressed no official stance on tolls, but the Democratic former congressman said, "I don't think any of those methods of financing can be taken off the table." He, too, is a smart man. Inslee understands what the Connecting Washington Task Force explained in December. The number of vehicle miles traveled in our state is projected to reach 60 billion by 2020, annual freight volumes will triple by 2035 and transit ridership in the Puget Sound area alone is expected to grow 90 percent by 2040.

Here in Clark County, tolling is a central issue, to say the least. It even affects mayoral races. In 2009, Tim Leavitt used a no-tolls platform to unseat longtime Mayor Royce Pollard by a whopping nine percentage points, only to stun many of his supporters later by reluctantly accepting tolls as a necessary evil.

The anti-tolls crowd might be shrinking, but don't expect the opposition to vanish. This debate is most productively advanced when it is based on science, statistics and informed projections. We all can begin with the Square-One agreement that highways, bridges and transit projects cost money. Lots of it. Then we should advance to a broad examination of all transportation funding options, "a combination of a number of sources," as McKenna puts it. "I just don't know what the mix is going to be at this point."

Nor does any other informed person. But the level of desperation brings us to this point: The Republican candidate for governor, no less, says that "in the next couple of years" voters will need to consider taxes to pay for transportation. McKenna also said that "when it comes to transportation, we've always relied on voter-approved revenues to preserve, maintain and improve transportation infrastructure." Not exactly a traditional conservative mantra.

The task force warned that, without funding solutions, Washingtonians "cannot preserve the state's highways and bridges and maintain ferry service at current levels." Remember, too, that transportation investments "hold the key to job creation and economic growth."

Putting transportation needs in that context, it's unwise to just say no to any possible solution.