Initiative to restrict tolls draws opposition

Business, labor, environmental, other groups join to fight it

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: July 22, 2011, 10:45 AM

 

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An initiative that would restrict the use of tolling to pay for state transportation projects appears headed for the November ballot, and a coalition of business, labor, environmental and community groups has formed to fight it, saying the measure threatens vital transportation projects and economic growth across the state.

Initiative 1125, sponsored by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, would change Washington law to ban peak-hour tolling, a key part of the funding plan for the Columbia River Crossing. The measure also would prohibit toll revenue from being spent on non-transportation purposes, require tolls to be dedicated to the projects they’re paying for, end tolling on individual projects when they are fully paid for and require the Legislature to set toll amounts.

Tolls are set by the Washington Transportation Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. If the measure passes, Washington would become the only state to ban variable toll pricing and the only state to require the Legislature, not unelected officials, to set toll amounts.

Eyman submitted 328,000 initiative signatures to the Secretary of State’s office by the July 9 deadline. The measure needs 241,153 valid signatures to earn a place on the fall ballot. David Ammons, spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed, confirmed Thursday that the initiative likely will be certified today.

Operating under the banner “Keep Washington Rolling,” the new coalition has vowed to defeat the initiative at the polls.

“I-1125 is a new attack on transportation and transit projects in Washington state,” said Steve Mullin, president of the business organization Washington Roundtable, in a statement this week. “That business, labor, environmentalists and community leaders from around the state are standing together to oppose this effort in a nearly unprecedented coalition speaks volumes about just how much harm I-1125 would do to our economy and quality of life in Washington state.”

The measure is “funded by a small handful of people and will undermine our ability to make progress on the state’s pressing transportation challenges,” Mullin said. Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, an opponent of the I-90 light rail project, has contributed $1.1 million to the initiative campaign.

I-1125 would have its greatest impact on the use of tolls to fund mega-projects in Seattle, including a proposed light rail line across Lake Washington on the I-90 floating bridge, a new Highway 520 bridge and a replacement for the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct. But it could also unravel the tolling plan for the Columbia River Crossing on Interstate 5 by further reducing toll revenue.

Crossing planners have counted on bridge tolls to raise between $1 billion and $1.4 billion of the $3.6 billion cost of the bridge and interchange upgrade project. However, those estimates are being revised downward by up to $598 million as a result of outdated traffic projections.

I-1125 would put at risk both present and future projects that rely on the sale of bonds, threatening thousands of construction jobs and discouraging businesses from locating or expanding in Washington state, said Jeff Johnson of the Washington State Labor Council.

However, the Eyman initiative has won support from some unexpected sources.

“People of all political stripes are bound to feel under assault from the battery of tolls that are now under discussion,” wrote Nina Shapiro, a staff writer for the progressive Seattle Weekly newspaper, in a blog this week. "To bureaucrats, tolling seems to be like alcohol or pie: once they get a taste, they can’t seem to stop.”

Though the Washington Constitution clearly restricts the use of gas tax and toll revenues to transportation purposes, Eyman said his initiative would eliminate loopholes the state Legislature could exploit as it tries to find an end run around Initiative 1053. That measure, approved by voters last year, requires a two-thirds majority vote to increase taxes. In contrast, raising fees requires only a simple majority vote.

Eyman said he believes toll revenue will be tapped to pay for non-transportation purposes as tolling becomes more widespread.

“In Olympia, there are scores of dedicated funds, and they are regularly raided,” he said. “A big pot of money sitting down in Olympia is like leaving a wallet in a bad neighborhood. It’s not going to stay there very long.”

He noted that the Legislature last year tapped revenue from the sale of bonds intended for capital projects to help balance the state’s operating budget. Eyman could not cite an instance in which state gas tax or transportation fee revenue was diverted to the state general fund, however.

The Highway 520 bridge in Seattle introduced the first variable bridge tolls in June.

Asked why he wants to change the law to bar the practice, under which tolls increase during rush hour to provide an incentive for commuters to use mass transit or carpool, Eyman said it’s unfair, especially to low-income commuters.

In Washington, “tolls have always been uniform and consistent,” Eyman said. “Everyone pays the same, 24/7. Variable tolls are particularly burdensome to poor people. We are just going to price people off the roads and that will solve congestion.”

“For any policy to survive, it has to have the acceptance of the citizenry,” he said. “These are tough economic times. People will be willing to swallow tolls if they think they’re fair.”

The Eyman initiative is gaining traction just as a new high-powered panel appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire begins work on designing a 10-year plan for funding the state’s transportation system. The plan will be presented to the 2012 Legislature.

The “Connecting Washington Task Force,” which held its first meeting Tuesday in Seattle, will review statewide transportation needs, recommend the most promising projects for investment, and identify potential revenue sources, including new taxes, fees and tolls.

The financing plan for the Columbia River Crossing counts on state matches of $450 million each from Washington and Oregon. Without a new state transportation funding plan, construction won’t begin on priority projects, including the crossing, according to the governor’s description of the state’s transportation funding plight.

“Washington’s transportation system is not viable over the long term,” Gregoire told the panel. “To survive, the system requires a 10-year investment strategy based on new revenue.

Transportation revenue packages enacted in 2003 and 2005, paid for with hikes in the state gas tax and other fees, have funded more than 400 transportation projects across the state. Most of those will be under contract or completed by mid-2013.

But after the 2013-15 biennium, more than 90 percent of the proceeds from those revenue measures will cover only debt service on the projects funded. And because those packages did not include money for maintenance or preservation of new roads, deterioration will set in, including sharp declines in pavement conditions, the governor warned.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.