Local news

Gas tax likely to stay

Voters in the traffic-clogged Puget Sound battled Tuesday with those who drive through wide-open spaces in the rest of Washington over the state’s new gasoline tax.

The Puget Sound, which has more voters in those cars that choke the freeways and arterials, seemed to have the upper hand late Tuesday night. Initiative 912, which would repeal the incremental 9.5-cent gasoline tax, was narrowly losing a seesaw battle.

Spokane voters were decidedly against the tax, with about 55 percent of them supporting the repeal. The pattern was repeated in most Eastern Washington counties, where initiative supporters had reminded voters they would pay more taxes than they would get back in road projects.

But the initiative was being turned down by an even bigger margin in King County, the state’s most populous and home to two of the biggest projects targeted for money from the gas tax – the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 bridge over Lake Washington. Late Tuesday, King County was reporting nearly two of every three voters were willing to keep the tax and rejecting the initiative.

The repeal of the unpopular tax seemed a sure bet this summer, when initiative supporters gathered some 400,000 signatures in just a few weeks to put the proposal on the ballot, and fuel prices seemed headed for the stratosphere.

But business groups and the transportation industry supplied some $3 million for a fall push to defeat the initiative, warning that without the tax, needed road and bridge projects would not get done, traffic would get worse and motorists’ safety would be in jeopardy. Gov. Christine Gregoire also warned of the dangers earthquakes posed to some of the West Side’s aging thoroughfares.

Steve Robinson of Spokane Rock Products, the head of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee that decided to support the tax, said Tuesday it provides “a very strong economic boost for the state.”

Robinson also suggested that the public may have changed its mind about the tax in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Although the massive storm caused gasoline prices to spike, it also showed the dangers to a community that does not improve its infrastructure, he said.

“That’s got to give people pause,” Robinson said.

Weekend rockslides in the Cascades along Interstate 90 – the second in two months to close part of the state’s main east-west lifeline – may have also influenced voters going to the polls on Tuesday. Projects from the gasoline tax include some $490 million to address the slides, he said.

Kaare Ness, assistant director of the Yes on 912 campaign, said he didn’t think the rock- slides had a noticeable effect on voters, noting that while the slides were unexpected, they were a natural phenomenon. And they happened after most absentee voters had mailed their ballots.

Instead, Ness thought voters in Puget Sound counties were probably “a bit more open to taxes and government solutions to problems.”

But initiative supporters held out hope that later counts would swing their way, even in King County’s outlying, suburban areas.

“This is the urban-rural split we see so commonly in Washington,” Ness said. “We’re confident the late returns are going to favor us.”

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