Image: Seattle Light Rail
Elaine Thompson / AP
Transit officials hope a .5% increase in the sales tax will be approved, allowing them to complete a 34-mile expansion of the light rail system from Seattle to Sea-Tac International Airport.
updated 10/28/2008 2:19:06 PM ET 2008-10-28T18:19:06

Amid a national economic downturn and a recent strike at the region's largest private employer, Seattle-area voters are being asked to approve $17.9 billion in improvements to commuter rail and bus service.

Proposition 1 would impose a sales tax increase of .5 percent, a nickel per $10, to pay for the improvements. A typical adult would pay about $69 a year in new sales taxes, according to Sound Transit, the region's transit authority.

The bulk of the new money would be used to add 34 miles to the light-rail system already approved by voters. The first phase of the system, linking downtown Seattle to the city's airport, is set to open late next year. The light rail would run on clean hydropower.

Sound Transit's taxing jurisdiction sprawls across the three counties, taking in roughly half of Washington state's population.

Last year, voters soundly rejected a more sweeping plan that also included road improvements and new park-and-ride lots.

Mayor Greg Nickels, who doubles as Sound Transit chairman, predicted the current measure will pass easily, largely because of strong support among younger, more transit-oriented voters.

Backers are also counting on more votes from environmentalists because this year's measure has the endorsement of the Sierra Club, which campaigned against last year's proposal because of the highway component.

NoToProp1 campaign treasurer Mark Baerwaldt predicts an "enormous rejection," saying little in the plan has changed to convince voters to reverse their decision of a year ago.

Opponents also argue that the plan will do nothing to relieve traffic congestion for many years, if at all.

One potential factor in the outcome: The average price of unleaded regular gasoline in the area spiked at about $4.38 a gallon in late June.

Bus and commuter train usage rose sharply the following month, the last for which figures are available, and Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said there had been no indication of a significant drop-off since then. In the past week, the average price of gas in the area has fallen below $3.

The Proposition 1 vote also is likely to be influenced by the nation's economic crisis and the strike by about 25,000 Boeing Co. production workers in the region. Negotiators for Boeing and the machinists union reached a tentative contract agreement Monday night, spokesmen for both sides said.

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