OLYMPIA — Tim Eyman’s latest shot at shaping state government via initiative clamps down on the use of tolling to solve the biggest transportation riddles in Washington.
Eyman, a Mukilteo resident, says Initiative 1125 applies just enough pressure to ensure lawmakers are held accountable for
how billions of dollars in tolls received now and in the future will be spent.
And, he says, it assures fairness for drivers by disallowing variable toll rates and making sure money is spent on the road or bridge on which it is collected.
Opponents contend the ballot measure squeezes too tightly, damaging the state’s ability to create high-occupancy toll lanes on I-405 from Lynnwood to Bellevue, raise money needed to complete a new Highway 520 floating bridge and carry out transportation improvements statewide for years to come.
And they say the initiative’s prescription for change isn’t as simple as it sounds and may require interpretation by a judge to figure out the full extent of its impact.
“Initiative 1125 would have a chilling effect on our ability to build and maintain our transportation system,” said Reid Shockey of Everett, president of Snohomish County Citizens for Improved Transportation. “If it’s approved, I’m not sure any of us, including Mr. Eyman, knows what all the consequences would be.”
Initiative 1125’s target is tolling, which the state considers a potentially vital source of future transportation funding because revenues from gas taxes are on the decline with people buying fuel-efficient cars and driving less.
Eyman’s primary financial backer is Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, whose fight to keep light rail off the I-90 floating bridge would be bolstered by the measure. The state Republican Party is also supporting the initiative.
Historically quarrelsome voices of the political world are united in opposition and began airing television ads against it last week. This coalition includes the Association of Washington Business, Boeing, the Machinists union, the Washington State Labor Council and the Sierra Club.
If passed, the measure requires that the Legislature set tolls instead of the state Transportation Commission, a panel of seven people appointed by the governor.
Tolls would have to be “uniform and consistent,” and the initiative would bar variable pricing, which allows tolls to rise when traffic gets heavy and fall when it is lightest.
The initiative would reaffirm state law requiring that toll revenue be spent only on the highway or bridge on which it is collected. Tolls would end once the debt for the prescribed work is paid off. “For nearly 100 years, when there was a toll, everyone paid the same and all the money raised from tolls was used to pay off the project as quickly as possible to minimize the project’s overall cost,” Eyman said in an email.
He called variable pricing a form of social engineering “that is completely unfair because it hits poor and working class taxpayers the hardest” by making them pay more of their earnings to commute to and from work.
And Initiative 1125 also includes a provision aimed at preventing the addition of light rail on the I-90 bridge. It does so with language prohibiting highway lanes constructed with gas tax dollars from being used for “non-highway purposes,” which is code for light rail.
For lawmakers, setting tolls may be the most problematic aspect of the initiative. They worry partisan politics will prevent agreement, and, without agreement, projects will be delayed or not done. When work isn’t done, jobs are lost and the economy will suffer, they say.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee and spends most of each session struggling to get bipartisan support for a roads budget.
“There’s no other state that handles its toll setting as he proposes,” she said. “If this thing passes, whoever wins, Democrat or Republican, won’t be able to solve transportation problems in Washington in a thoughtful way.”
State Treasurer Jim McIntire contends it will impede sales of bonds because the process creates uncertainty for buyers who prefer to know tolls are set by independent panels like the commission.
“Requiring tolls to be set and adjusted by the Legislature rather than by an independent toll-setting body makes the cost of bonds secured solely by toll revenue prohibitively expensive and would be unprecedented nationally,” McIntire said in August. “We simply cannot sell toll-backed bonds if the Legislature is the toll-setting authority.”
Eyman scoffs at such assertions. Passage of Initiative 1053 last year should have made clear that the state’s voters want elected lawmakers making decisions, not unelected political appointees.
“The operative word is unelected,” he said. “They’re advocating taxation without representation.”
Regarding bonds, he said, it shouldn’t be about politics but about “will there be accountability built into the process or not.”
State transportation officials are factoring tolling into their near-term and long-term planning.
Toll revenues are counted on to help build a new bridge on I-5 across the Columbia River and construct the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel. There’s talk of one day imposing tolls on stretches of I-5 and U.S. 2 to make long-sought safety improvements.
Some lawmakers want to be able to charge tolls on I-90 and spend some of the money on constructing the Highway 520 bridge — a shift not allowed under current state law.
While Eyman’s initiative puts a wrinkle in such efforts, it doesn’t appear to scuttle any project outright.
For example, the Legislature has already authorized use of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I-405 from Lynnwood south. If this passes, lawmakers will have to set a toll and spell out where the money would be spent if they want to see it to fruition.
And with Highway 520, lawmakers approved legislation earlier this year establishing a schedule of tolls. Those won’t be undone by the initiative.
One area that may prompt a fight in court is whether Initiative 1125 applies to setting of fares charged on Washington State Ferries.
Eyman said it should. Haugen also thinks it does. But that’s not the view in the offices of the governor and attorney general.
Alan Copsey, the deputy solicitor general who wrote the explanatory statement for the initiative in the voter’s pamphlet, said I-1125 amends the law governing tolls but not setting of fares.
“It is difficult for me to see how it applies to ferries, but it may wind up in court to decide,” he said.
Yes on 1125: www.yeson1125.org
No on 1125: voteno1125.com/
Fiscal analysis: www.ofm.wa.gov/ initiatives/2011/1125.pdf
Explanation of initiative in voters pamphlet: tinyurl.com/Initiative1125
State Treasurer Jim McIntire’s statement: www.tre.wa.gov/news/pr110812.shtml