Eyman’s anti-tolling initiative too close to call

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Updated: November 8, 2011, 11:46 PM

 

OLYMPIA — A Tim Eyman initiative that would disrupt Washington state’s use of tolling and prohibit light rail from crossing the Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington was narrowly trailing in election returns Tuesday night.

Less than 51 percent of voters were opposing Initiative 1125 in early results tallied from 1.1 million votes. It was the only statewide ballot measure that was at risk of losing, sullied by broad opposition to the measure — from Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.

Local angle

I-1125 could affect Columbia River Crossing plans

The fate of the toll-limiting Initiative 1125 remained unclear Tuesday, but Columbia River Crossing officials will be watching with interest when final results emerge. If it passes, the initiative could affect financial plans on the more than

$3 billion project that will replace the ­Interstate 5 Bridge.

About a third of the CRC’s price tag is expected to be covered by toll revenue. That would include varying peak-hour rates, which I-1125 would ban.

“We see tolling as a definite tool for us as we attempt to fund projects like the Columbia River Crossing,” said Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

Hammond said she’s hoping the measure will fail, and said Tuesday night she remained “cautiously optimistic” that it will. But should late ballots erase Tuesday night’s deficit and the measure passes, transportation officials would have to step back and rethink how to pay for big projects like the CRC and the Seattle area’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.

— Eric Florip, The Columbian

Eyman said that no matter the final tally, the campaign had made tolls a radioactive issue for lawmakers.

“I think they’re walking on the thinnest of thin ice,” Eyman said. “It’s hard to view this thing as anything else but a very successful effort.”

Eyman’s plan would force the Legislature to approve tolls, instead of allowing a commission to decide. State officials fear that the rules would scare away investors who won’t want to purchase bonds backed by tolls that could be mired in a political process.

That could take away a key funding source for projects such as the Highway 520 bridge replacement across Lake Washington and a new Columbia River bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. The state has been looking toward that revenue source because gas tax revenue is plateauing, and much of it is already dedicated to specific projects.

The measure also includes a major provision that would halt light rail from running across the Interstate 90 bridge — something that voters in the Seattle area previously approved. Eyman’s initiative campaign was largely funded by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who has battled against light rail proposals for years.

An opposition group, Keep Washington Rolling, declared victory in the race.

“Once again, voters around the state have rejected another reckless Tim Eyman threat to vital transportation projects in their part of the state,” the group wrote in a statement.

Eyman’s initiative isn’t the only one that could complicate the finances in Olympia. Initiative 1163, dealing with long-term care workers, passed with broad support. It will cost the state $18 million over the next two years and doesn’t have a source of revenue.

The initiative includes 75 hours of paid training for long-term care workers, instead of the currently required 35 hours. All new workers would undergo federal background checks. Currently, new workers who have lived in Washington for three years undergo state background checks while people new to Washington go through an FBI check.

Lawmakers are currently in a struggle to find as much as $2 billion in budget cuts that will likely include further reductions in education funding at all levels.

Voters previously approved a measure similar to I-1163 three years ago. The Legislature has delayed implementation because of budget constraints. Advocates are concerned that people who need care may be vulnerable.

“Today, the voters have spoken again, making a strong statement that they expect quality care for our vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities to be a high priority,” said pro-1163 spokesman Sandeep Kaushik.

Voters also approved two constitutional amendments Tuesday, one to make a technical correction about voter residency rules and another that requires the Legislature to set aside extra cash during times of economic boom.