Washington states already stymied effort to approve a new transportation-funding plan no doubt was dealt a further setback by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast, says Spokane auto dealer Chris Marr, who recently became chairman of the state Transportation Commission.
Obviously it changed the whole landscape from a revenue standpoint as far as the state budget, Marr says.
The states general-aviation, freight, and rail industries and the state-operated ferry system all are certain to feel financial implications from the attacks, which have led to intensified security precautions and heaped public anxiety and buying hesitation onto an already depressed state economy, he says.
In Eastern Washington, tighter border-crossing procedures could have a negative impact on freight mobility, he says, and some other Spokane-area transportation-related industries, such as auto sales. already are seeing a further weakening, as he says hes observed firsthand.
I would hope, as soon as the smoke clears, that things will settle down. Hopefully, long term, it wont affect the publics willingness to look at new funding sources to address some of the states most critical transportation issues, Marr says.
Without new funding sources, whether in the form of a gas-tax increase, auto registration fee, added local-government contributions, or some combination thereof, there wont be enough money to do anything more than operate and maintain the states current transportation system, he asserts.
Because of voters overwhelming passage two years ago of Initiative 695, which did away with the unpopular motor vehicle excise tax, the state now has less than $2 billion a year that it can spend on transportation, but an estimated $110 billion would be required over the next 20 years to fund all of the states transportation needs, Marr says.
The gap between need and available funding is huge, he says.
Washington state currently spends about $22 per $1,000 of personal income in the state to maintain and improve the transportation system. Thats down from $35 per $1,000 in the 1970s, he says. Considering that demands on the system have grown dramatically over that time, Its easy to understand why theres a transportation problem, he adds.
Nothing from Olympia
The Washington Legislature failed in late July, after being in session for a near-record 163 days, to reach agreement on a proposed multibillion-dollar traffic-relief package, meaning that the controversial issue likely wont be debated again until next years legislative session convenes in January.
The failure to reach a compromise disheartened Marr, who called it an unwillingness by legislators to support a solution. Historically, he says, Transportation was one area you didnt go in terms of politicization. I think its going to be the weight of public opinion that changes it; I cant tell you how its going to be resolved.
Marr is vice president and chief operating officer of Foothills Auto Group, which operates Foothills Lincoln Mercury Mazda, at 202 E. North Foothills Drive, and Honda of Spokane/Acura of Spokane, at 8201 E. Sprague.
He was appointed to the seven-member Transportation Commission in December 1997 by Gov. Gary Locke to complete the term of Spokane attorney Linda Tompkins, who was named to fill a Spokane County Superior Court judgeship.
Fellow Spokanite Michele Maher, owner of Freight Management Resources, also serves on the panel, and Marr says he thinks the two of themworking somewhat from different spheres of expertisehave advanced some policy that has been beneficial to Eastern Washington and Spokane.
The Transportation Commission sets policy and general direction for the state Department of Transportation, a 6,000-employee agency. The agency operates and maintains a system that includes 7,000 miles, and 18,000 lanes of highways; 29 ferries and 20 ferry terminals; 3,300 bridges and tunnels; 45 rest areas; 70,000 acres of roadside; six mountain passes; and about 76,000 culverts and catch basins. The department is overseen by a full-time transportation secretary, who is appointed by the commission and carries out its mandates.
Marrs term on the commission expires in June 2002. Although he would be eligible for appointment to a second six-year term, he says its unlikely he would accept because he is due to take over the chairmanship of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce next year and wants to be able to devote as much time as possible to that role. He estimates he currently spends the equivalent of eight to 10 days a month working on state transportation-related matters, and travels to the west side of the state about once a week to deal with those responsibilities.
During Marrs time on the commission, the agency that it oversees has gone through arguably its most tumultuous period in decades, with the voter approval of Referendum 49, a $2.4 billion transportation-projects funding proposal, followed by the nullifying of that funding through I-695, and then a lack of consensus about how to replace it. Added into that mix was a call by Lockes Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation to spend billions of dollars to alleviate traffic bottlenecks and improve mass transit, and the retirement last spring of Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison, who was succeeded by Doug MacDonald, the first transportation secretary in decades who isnt a politician.
Its an interesting time, says Marr. Yes, the frustration has been there. Its two steps forward one step back.
On the positive side, MacDonald, who formerly ran the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, has moved quickly to reorganize the state Department of Transportation and give it a stronger focus on winning public confidence through improved project delivery, Marr says.
Theres been a real culture shift within the department. You have kind of a whole generation of young Turks. Its kind of exciting to be a part of that process, he says.
Marr says he has sought during his time on the commission to bring to the department a lot more of a business approach in terms of cost benefit and fiscal conservatism, and probably has been viewed as a bit of a maverick for the stances hes taken on some issues.
If a spending proposal is going to win his support, It has to make sense, he says. It has to make the whole system work more efficiently, or its just a nice idea. Im a strong supporter of public accountability.
Concerned by a recent escalation of comments among some urban legislators who want a bigger share of transportation tax dollars to be spent in the cities that they represent, rather than in needy rural areas, Marr says, My feeling is unless you view the system as a whole, youre going to have competing needs Balkanizing the system. I think that is a very dangerous road to go down.
One of the biggest challenges facing the state Department of Transportation, he says, is making clear to the states residents exactly where their money is being spent.
The message from the people is that they dont know how efficiently their tax dollars are being used. There hasnt been a good job of explaining to the public what it gets for its transportation dollar, Marr says.
Under MacDonald, he says, I think that is the direction the department is moving.
The Transportation Commission was scheduled to meet in Spokane on Sept. 13, but that meeting was postponed following the terrorist attacks, and now is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 5. The commission will meet separately with Eastern Region DOT employees, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, and other invited transportation stakeholders in the morning and early afternoon. That will be followed by a public and legislator comment period at 3:30 p.m. in the Spokane Transit Authority building at 1230 W. Boone.
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