Pave or Save: Is Referendum 51 Right for Washington State?

News & Politics

On November 5, Washington residents will head to the polls to vote on the largest public works project in the state's history, yet many question whether Referendum 51 is the solution to the traffic congestion crisis.

The plan set forth by the state and backed by business and labor unions leaves voters with the choice between the lesser of two evils: a transportation package that both sides agree is flawed - or nothing at all.

The $7.7 billion in improvements outlined in the referendum includes $1.8 billion for upgrades to Interstate 405, a 30-mile stretch of road from Tukwila to Lynnwood. These include adding as many as two additional lanes in each direction, truck climbing and auxiliary lanes, High Occupancy Vehicle access ramps, and major interchange reconstruction. About 85 percent of the budget is designated for highway expansion and improvements and 15 percent for public transit and other transportation options.

According to Kevin Shively, "If you weigh the costs and the benefits of the package, the costs far outweigh." Shively is the regional policy director for Transportation Choices Coalition, a non-profit organization working on statewide transportation issues.

"This is like building 17 to 18 new stadiums through the state."

According to Shively, the $1.8 billion is just the tip of the iceberg when considering the total cost of a plan he calls "financially irresponsible." The cost for the completion of the 10-year project is currently estimated at almost $11 billion.

Comparing the project's cost to the construction of the new Seahawks stadium in Seattle, Shively said, "This is like building 17 to 18 new stadiums through the state."

Shively and other opponents of the plan also said that the 600 acres of new pavement that will be added by the I-405 expansion alone will only generate new traffic.

"Within five years, the highway would be as congested as it is today," Shively said, noting that the area's population growing at an unprecedented rate.

The congestion crisis has forced legislators into making a quick decision on the issue, Shively explained. "They are willing to put their money into any solution."

Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, co-chair of the Yes on R-51 campaign, contends that the project is not a solution, but the beginning of a solution. "Referendum 51 will not solve the transportation problem facing the state of Washington. It is a foundation of a home we're building," said Gorton.

In response to the assertion from the political left that road-expansion projects in areas such as Los Angeles and Atlanta have actually increased traffic congestion and pollution, Gorton said, "That is only true if you have a successful society and economy."

A 10-year gridlock study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion has serious economic impacts, including lost time and costs associated with wasted fuel and pollution.

Those riding the fence on the Referendum 51 issue, including the Washington State Transit Association, fear that turning down the package could mean that money for needed improvements will vanish.

"Our concern is that the legislature will not want to take up the issue again, and if they do, it will be with less money for transit," said Peter Thein, acting executive director of the transit association. Thein said the current package would increase the budget for transit from $4.5 million to $81 million per year over the next 10 years.

A 10-year gridlock study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion has serious economic impacts, including lost time and costs associated with wasted fuel and pollution.

Shively disagrees, suggesting that legislators go back to the table and come up with a more intelligent alternative that provides more money for transit and choices. "Public sentiment is so in favor of these choices, we feel like we can get there," Shively said.

Shively's organization has partnered with five other concerned groups - including the local chapter of the Sierra Club and 1,000 Friends of Washington - to create one of the alternatives to R-51.

Their plan, called Sensible Solutions for 405, focuses on alternative transportation and carries a price tag of less than half less that of the Referendum 51 proposal.

Gorton maintains that people would have to be forced into using alternative transportation. "People don't know what's good for them," he said.

Amy Blaszyk is a student at Michigan State University. She can be contacted at

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