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Rossi’s road plan taps vehicle sales taxes

OLYMPIA – Saying that key transportation choke points are “a foot on the air hose of the Washington economy,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi on Tuesday proposed a 30-year, $15.4 billion plan to fix them. Much of the money would come from the existing sales tax on vehicles.

Critics called Rossi’s proposal little but air.

“Dino Rossi’s plan is a recycled 1950s-style freeway construction bonanza with a twist,” said Aaron Ostrom, with the advocacy group Fuse. “The twist is that he’s financing it by diverting funding from schools rather than with gas taxes.”

Included in Rossi’s no-new-taxes plan: about $2.2 billion for work on the North Spokane Corridor. Rossi said he disagrees with Democratic lawmakers who want Spokane-area residents to contribute millions toward the long-planned freeway linking I-90 to U.S. 395.

“It is time that the North Spokane Corridor gets the attention from Olympia that it deserves,” reads part of his 21-page plan. Rossi plans a news conference in Spokane this afternoon to discuss his plan.

In Rossi’s proposal, about $10 billion would come from sales taxes that would normally go the state’s general fund. That’s the main account the state uses to pay for things like schools, medical care, social services, colleges and prisons.

“The transportation challenges in our state didn’t develop overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight by Republican Dino Rossi’s road and bridge fairy,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said in a statement.

Legislative budget writers have long resisted pulling money from the general fund to pay for transportation as a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach. House Republicans this year proposed a plan that included some elements of what Rossi is proposing; Democratic budget writers pronounced it dead on arrival.

In his remarks Tuesday, Rossi heaped criticism on Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democrat-controlled Legislature, saying they stalled as gridlock worsened.

Gregoire “has no funding source, so therefore she has no plan,” said Rossi. “It’s not a plan unless you have a funding source. Otherwise, it’s just yapping.”

He argues that “through the responsible use of tax dollars,” budget writers can protect education, health care and other vital state services.

“We can make real transportation progress with the money that people are already sending to Olympia,” he said.

In addition to construction projects, Rossi’s plan calls for eliminating the sales tax on hybrid, electric and alternative-fuel vehicles for the next decade and having the state motor pool filled with those types of vehicles by 2015.

He also wants to spend $200 million on clearing the way for fish to get through nearly 1,700 state-owned culverts. It would open up more than 2,300 miles of potential salmon habitat, he said. He would put $500 million toward 27 “unfunded, underfunded or delayed” projects and $368 million into the account that pays for ferry construction and terminals.

Most of the money, however, would be spent on major road and bridge projects, including replacing Seattle’s Evergreen Point Floating Bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct, widening part of I-405, replacing the I-5 bridge between Washington and Oregon, and other major projects.

The $2.2 billion for the North Spokane Corridor, he said, would build the 60 mph highway from I-90 to U.S. 395 at Wandermere, including half a dozen interchanges and a six-lane collector system along I-90.

Much of the money for Rossi’s plan would come from:

•Diverting about 40 percent, or $7.7 billion, of the sales tax on new and used vehicles into transportation projects.

•Eliminating the state sales tax, about $2.4 billion annually, on transportation projects.

•Tapping Seattle-area Sound Transit for $690 million from its reserves.

•Putting a toll on the new 520 floating bridge once it’s built in 2014 to generate an estimated $721 million.

Rossi said the proposal makes sense because the financing isn’t subject to the same pressures as the gas tax, which now pays for most transportation projects. As gas prices have risen, state gas-tax collections have tapered off because people are using less fuel.

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