Extending SR 167, 509 questioned

Staff writerMay 15, 2013 

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Heavy truck traffic often clogs the roads at the end of state Route 167 where it ends at Meridian Street in Puyallup.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER — staff photographer

The biggest piece of an $8.78 billion transportation proposal in the Legislature — the project to finish state Routes 167 and 509 in Pierce and King counties — hasn’t garnered much criticism. The controversy has been, instead, over the taxes that would pay for it.

But a few dissenting voices are starting to emerge, mainly questioning whether the proposal would worsen suburban sprawl and soak up money that could be used to repair existing roads.

A former state transportation secretary, Doug MacDonald, took aim Tuesday at the proposal to extend Routes 167 and 509 at a cost of $1.73 billion over a decade and perhaps another billion or more later.

“This big new Puget Sound Gateway Project is a case study of how myth can displace analysis,” MacDonald wrote on the news website Crosscut, “and join with the muscle of old-fashioned highway lobby politics to throw big money at investments that are not the best use of scarce dollars.”

To one degree or another, his skepticism about that and other big proposed projects is shared by environmentalists at such organizations as the Sierra Club and the Sightline Institute.

Other environmental groups, though, are pushing side by side with business and labor interests for the larger transportation plan that includes the gateway — on the grounds that it would also provide money for sidewalks, bike lanes, storm-water capture and some local tax authority that could rescue ailing mass-transit agencies.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn’s plan would raise more than $8.7 billion for improvements, mostly through a 10-cent gas tax increase.

“The (environmental) community is split over whether the transit and other funding, frankly, is worth the downside of the sprawl-inducing highways,” said Clark Williams-Derry, director of programs for the Sightline Institute think tank in Seattle. Legislators “are basically holding transit hostage in order to get votes for highways, and I think it’s incumbent on the environmental community not to let them do that.”

But one environmentalist in a particularly powerful spot, Gov. Jay Inslee, is pushing hard for the plan and said Tuesday he doesn’t see it worsening sprawl.

“We are a growing state. We are expecting a million more people here in the next decade or decade and a half,” the Democratic governor said, adding that the proposal replaces problematic roads and completes unfinished ones. “167 is in a sense, a highway to nowhere. We’re connecting it to the port so we can increase freight mobility and increase exports to Asia.”

Environmentalists with the Sierra Club hope to get SR 167 and other projects redesigned rather than killed, said Tim Gould, chairman of a transportation committee for the club’s Washington chapter. By reducing lanes and interchanges, he said, designers could accomplish the goal of getting goods to and from the Port of Tacoma without adding to sprawl.

MacDonald suggests in his column that a new highway to east Pierce County would be a gift to developers there such as the one building the Tehaleh housing development that envisions 5,900 homes in a community formerly known as Cascadia.

But mainly, he wrote, the gateway’s position as the most well-funded project in the package reflects the “political mojo” of the state’s ports.

He said in an interview that the coalition of interests pushing for road improvements in Olympia doesn’t represent ordinary drivers who would want their gas tax money spent fixing existing roads and finding ways to reduce congestion on Interstate 5.

Maintenance and preservation account for about 10 percent of the total funding package.

“I respect the critic here. He has opinions,” Inslee said. “They’re always easier to voice once you’re out of office.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com @Jordan_Schrader

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