An initiative aimed at restricting the use of highway tolls and blocking light rail from the Interstate 90 bridge appeared headed to defeat, thanks to a big no vote in King County.
OLYMPIA — An initiative aimed at restricting the use of highway tolls and blocking light rail from the Interstate 90 bridge appeared headed to defeat, thanks to a big no vote in King County.
Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125 was leading in Eastern Washington and more rural parts of the state. But in order to win, it would have to do far better in areas outside King County than it was in the initial vote counts.
The measure was losing 51 percent to 49 percent statewide, with more than half of the projected vote counted. In King County, home to nearly a third of the state’s electorate, 60 percent of voters were saying no.
A defeat of I-1125 would essentially give state lawmakers a green light to help finance new highway and bridge projects using tolls.
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“It means that we have once again said to Tim Eyman and his wealthy backers ‘We are not gonna take it from you any more,’ ” King County Executive Dow Constantine said Tuesday, declaring victory.
Eyman, however, wasn’t giving up.
“We’re not conceding. We’d like to see some more numbers. It’s on the knife’s edge,” he said.
No matter how the vote turns out, “I think 1125 made tolls even more radioactive. It’s impossible to see the vote on 1125 as a massive endorsement of tolls on highways,” he said.
Eyman’s measure was bankrolled by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who donated nearly $1.1 million to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Two of the region’s largest employers, Microsoft and Boeing, were the major contributors to the no campaign, accounting for nearly half of the $2.5 million it raised.
Among other provisions, I-1125 would require the Legislature to approve tolls instead of the state Transportation Commission; ban variable-rate tolls, which charge more during peak driving times; and mandate that tolls go only toward work on the road being tolled.
Additional HOT lanes
House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said if the measure fails the state would likely see more high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes, which depend on variable-rate tolls to ease traffic flow.
Advocates say the variable rates help manage traffic congestion by allowing solo drivers to pay to use the HOT lane, freeing up room in other lanes.
Clibborn also said the I-90 bridge would likely be tolled at some point to help pay for a new Highway 520 bridge, and tolls would be used to help finance other major construction, including a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River.
Critics argue I-1125 would undermine efforts to find another way to help pay for highway construction as gas-tax collections plateau due to more fuel-efficient cars and less driving.
And it would make Washington the only state that requires legislators to set toll rates, in turn raising financing costs, according to analysts.
Eyman said I-1125 would make lawmakers more accountable for raising and spending billions of dollars in tolls, and make tolling fairer by banning variable-rate tolls that he says hit the state’s poorest residents the hardest.
The initiative also has a provision intended to keep light rail from crossing the I-90 bridge and continuing into downtown Bellevue. Freeman has long opposed light rail and Sound Transit’s plans to bring it to the Eastside.
One of the biggest objections state officials have to I-1125 is the mandate that lawmakers set tolls instead of the state Transportation Commission. The commission has seven members appointed by the governor and sets toll rates.
I-1125 opponents said having lawmakers set tolls would politicize the process and make it difficult, if not impossible, to sell bonds backed solely by tolls. That’s because investors would run the risk of lawmakers being unable to increase tolls if needed.
Eyman maintains the state could always issue so-called triple-backed bonds, where payments are backed first by tolls, then by the state gas tax, and then by the state general fund.
Those bonds typically get better interest rates than ones paid for only by tolls.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org