Tim Eyman's latest bomb of an initiative, I-1125, doesn't specifically ask voters to drop airplanes on Sound Transit trains or ram an explosive-laden speedboat into the 520 floating bridge. But it might as well.
Initiative 1125 sounds wonky at first, maybe even innocuous. So bear with me here.
To begin, it prohibits variable tolling prices based on traffic congestion or time of day. It then requires that a highway project be tolled only until its capital costs are paid, and that toll revenues can be spent only on the construction and capital improvement costs of the same project that's being tolled. It also says that tolls must be set directly by the legislature. And it bars using gas-tax-funded highway lanes for non-highway purposes (like converting them into light-rail lanes). Lastly, the initiative includes several redundant provisions that reinforce the intent of those listed above, such as barring the use of toll revenues for non-highway purposes.
But the intent of this boring-sounding initiative is far-reaching—particularly on projects that affect Seattle.
By barring not just the use, but the "transfer" of gas-tax-funded lanes for non-highway purposes, I-1125 seeks to block Sound Transit's access to the I-90 bridge, thus killing its plans to connect Seattle and the Eastside via light rail. By barring the use of variable tolling, the initiative kills the SR-167 "hot lanes" pilot, along with the similar lanes planned for I-405, to both fund its widening and help regulate its traffic. Variable tolling or "congestion pricing" is also a prominent feature of every existing or planned toll road in the state, a staple of modern transportation planning that I-1125 flat-out bars.
As for the initiative's insistence that toll revenue be used only to fund the specific roadway being tolled, and only to pay off its capital costs, these provisions seem directly aimed at the funding mechanism for replacing the 520 floating bridge. "All the numbers show that if you're going to use tolls effectively on 520, you need to toll I-90, too," explains former WSDOT director Doug MacDonald. Failure to toll both bridges would draw traffic to the free one, leaving 520 short on revenue and I-90 at a perpetual crawl. I-1125 would make I-90 tolling impossible, thus jeopardizing the entire 520 project, which already suffers from a $2 billion funding gap.
And, finally, there is I-1125's mandate that legislators set all toll rates directly, rather than delegating that authority to an independent commission, a seemingly innocuous provision with huge financial consequences. "There is a high price to pay for having politicians involved in toll setting," warns state treasurer Jim McIntire. "Our financial team could find no place in the country where a legislature is involved in toll setting, because doing this would make it impossible to sell bonds to finance a project." And in 520's case: no bonds, no bridge. Simple as that.
No, it's not a bomb per se, but when it comes to destroying roads, bridges, and rail, Eyman's latest for-profit initiative could prove just as destructive.
"It's not clear he's thought this through," MacDonald offers charitably. But it's also not clear that Eyman and his benefactors even give a shit. Kemper Freeman Jr., the Bellevue real estate mogul with a market philosophy somewhere to the right of Rich Uncle Pennybags, has already sunk $525,000 into the campaign—over 77 percent of total contributions—largely in support of the light-rail-killing provision that appears solely written to serve his obsession with defending his Eastside fiefdom from the communist menace he sees in Sound Transit. And Eyman, well, he's always been focused less on constructive solutions and more on blowing things up: in I-1125's case, our state's plan to shift transportation funding from the shrinking gas tax to regional tolling.
"If not tolling, then what?" asks a frustrated Steve Mullin, president of the pro-business Washington Roundtable. "There are just not a lot of other options."
Earlier this month, the Roundtable voted unanimously to oppose I-1125, a vote Mullin called "not controversial." Efforts are underway to reconstitute Keep Washington Rolling, the broad coalition of business, labor, and environmental and pro-transit groups that successfully opposed I-912's would-be gas-tax repeal. Mullin and other coalition members expect the resulting "No on 1125" campaign to be well funded.
"No one is saying, 'Gosh, we love tolling,'" says Mullin. "But it's just not possible to pay for all the infrastructure we need without it."
But then, paying for the infrastructure and services we need has never been Eyman's concern. (Eyman did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)