Eyman seeks signatures to restrict tolling in state

Initiative would ban variable tolls, use of funds for upkeep

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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View Tim Eyman’s full initiative at

http://sos.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i1125.pdf

Initiative activist Tim Eyman’s latest offering — if it makes it onto November’s ballot and is approved by voters — could bring the tolling plan for the Columbia River Crossing to a screeching halt.

Eyman announced this week that he’s collecting signatures on Initiative 1125, which would change Washington law to ban peak-hour tolling, a key part of the tolling plan for the Vancouver-Portland crossing. It would also prohibit tolls from being used to pay for anything but highway purposes and require the Legislature to set toll amounts.

I-1125 would eliminate loopholes the state Legislature is attempting to find in the wake of last year’s passing of Eyman’s Initiative 1053, which requires a / majority for tax increases and a simple majority to increase fees, he said. Since the law passed last year, Eyman said Legislators have been gravitating to fee increases to raise revenue.

He said he believes tolls, a fee, will be raided by lawmakers to pay for any number of things, essentially making them a tax. State law already prevents such a raid, but Eyman said he’s trying to reinforce that law.

“A toll has always been a compact between the government and the person paying it — that you’re paying this specific fee to pay for that specific project,” he said. “That (government) is not just going to steal the money and go spend it on something else.”

Planners expect $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion of the $3.6 billion bridge and interchange upgrade project to be paid for with tolling, including using peak-hour, or variable, tolling.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said Friday that the initiative is actually counter to protecting commuters, and such restrictions on spending prevent flexibility that saves taxpayers money.

“I don’t really see how Eyman’s initiative really benefits anybody. It seems like it’s actually anti-consumer,” Moeller said. “If you’re interested in people paying less for using the bridge in off-peak hours, why wouldn’t you be in favor of congestion pricing?”

Moeller said that instead, legislators would have to set tolls at a higher price around the clock to make sure that the state collects enough to make bond payments.

The State Route 520 bridge in Seattle is set to introduce the state’s first variable bridge tolls in June. Eyman said it will be a good test run — one that he believes will price poor people onto the Interstate 90 bridge, as tolling Interstate 5 could force Clark County drivers onto Interstate 205.

“What it seems to me they’re trying to do is, they’re trying to price poor people out of driving, and only allow rich people to use roads everyone has paid for,” Eyman said. “Poor people will not be able to afford to drive, or they’ll go to I-90 during peak times and create a huge bottleneck, a huge mess.”

Moeller said that won’t be the case, and pointed to studies done on State Route 167, where drivers can pay an average toll of 75 cents to $1 per trip to use “hot lanes” that move faster than regular traffic.

“The studies that they’ve done on the hot lanes, considered once to be ‘Lexus lanes’ that only the rich can pay for, (show that they) are being used by people who need to get to their job as soon as possible, or to pick up their kids,” he said. “Working families are using the lanes more often and more frequently because they have things they have to get to. It doesn’t sound like they’re being priced out of them at all.”

Vancouver Transportation Policy Director Thayer Rorabaugh said that congestion may peak on I-205 at first, but drivers will realize the huge detour is more costly in time and gas than paying a toll on I-5.

For construction only

Current CRC models show tolls to be permanent. I-1125 would also require that tolls end when the capital costs of a project are repaid. Eyman said that’s to keep lawmakers from raiding a well-stocked tolling fund to pay for other projects.

“They’re seeing dollar signs in their eyes, and seeing a huge opportunity for revenue,” he said.

But Rorabaugh said that hamstrings the state’s ability to pay for maintenance. He said CRC plans call for tolls to decrease once construction bonds are paid, but not go away.

“I agree with that — I don’t think tolling funds should be moved to the general fund,” Rorabaugh said. “Funding or revenue needs for the bridge remain after it is built: You have to maintain it. Tolls are a user fee for maintenance. (Eyman’s initiative) makes no sense whatsoever to me.”

Rorabaugh pointed to several places in the legislation where Eyman did not change the wording that tolls should be used to “encourage effective use of the transportation system.”

“Current legislation clearly says we are to optimize our transportation system, and to me, the variable tolling does just that,” he said. “I think that goes beyond just hopping in your car and driving. I think it involves changing how we go about our daily life.”

Eyman said his initiative is intended to follow the intent of the 18th Amendment to the state Constitution — that gas tax (and, in his opinion, tolls) should pay for highways only, not buses and light rail or pedestrians and cyclists.

“If you want to change the 18th Amendment, fine,” he said. “However, the18th Amendment has been interpreted to my knowledge … as meaning not general fund spending, not transit money.”

The amount that drivers will pay in tolls is still uncertain; Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt has said that draft plans show tolls could be $2 to $2.50 each way during peak times (6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.) and lower (such as $1) at other times.

Getting I-1125 on the ballot isn’t assured, Eyman said. He and supporters just began collecting signatures this week, and they need 241,000 valid signatures by July 8.

“That’s considered quite late in the cycle,” he said. “It is going to be a big, big challenge.”

If the initiative were made law, Moeller said, he and his colleagues would do what’s necessary to keep transportation projects moving forward.

“Mr. Eyman isn’t going to stop this bridge; he isn’t going to stop the 520 bridge,” he said. “He would claim it’s not his goal to stop the bridge. … It’s really just so he pays less.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, twitter.com/col_cityhall, andrea.damewood@columbian.com.