Wednesday, November 2, 2005

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Hurricane Katrina is figuring prominently in the campaign for a gas-tax revolt thousands of miles away.

As post-Katrina gasoline prices hover near the $3 mark in the West, Washington state voters have a chance Tuesday to overturn a 9-cent gas-tax increase that the Democratic governor and lawmakers green-lighted in a rush of optimism a few months ago.

But Gov. Christine Gregoire and other advocates of an ambitious 16-year transportation plan specifically are raising the specter of Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans as a sales pitch for keeping the $5.5 billion tax increase.

The Gulf Coast devastation underscored the need to get ready here, the governor said. In the West, that means preparing for the Big One — an earthquake that could sink Washington’s floating bridges or topple Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker bay-shore highway that carries more than 100,000 motorists a day.

Computer models show the viaduct collapsing or toppling in a quake, and other bridges also are considered at risk.

“The viaduct is our levees,” Mrs. Gregoire said, drawing a direct parallel between the rickety viaduct and the levees that left New Orleans vulnerable. “The earthquake is our hurricane.”

Critics of the largest highway tax increase in state history say it is a bad, bloated program that will not fix congestion. They say using the Katrina angle is an unseemly scare tactic.

Initiative 912 largely would undo the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s multibillion-dollar transportation fix. More than 400,000 voters, stirred by conservative talk radio and sticker shock at the gas pump, qualified the measure in near-record time.

Pollsters have produced conflicting results. Independent pollster Stuart Elway reports a steady erosion of support for a measure that many once considered a slam-dunk. His September poll shows it failing; other pollsters have it ahead.

Initiative foes have launched a media campaign that will top $2 million, with financing from Bill Gates and Microsoft, Boeing and other heavy hitters. They are outgunning the proponents 10-to-1.

The initiative would erase a 3-cent increase that went into effect in July, as well as the increases that lawmakers approved in advance for the next three years.

The new tax, fully implemented, would cost the average driver about $1 a week more, the state Department of Transportation calculates.

If repealed, the tax would revert to the old rate of 28 cents a gallon. At the current 31 cents, Washington’s gas tax is tied for the eighth highest in the nation.

In many states, governors and lawmakers are considering rebates or tax freezes to ease the pain of soaring gas prices. Washington Republican lawmakers requested a three-month suspension of all state gas taxes. Mrs. Gregoire and Democrats rejected that.

In September, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly defeated a 5 cent increase in the price of gas, and 8 cents for diesel fuel, for road and bridge repairs. Also in September, Hawaii’s wholesale gas prices were tied by state law to those of select mainland markets, an attempt to save island motorists from unfair prices at the pump.

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