A provision in Tim Eyman's tolling initiative, I-1125, would ban light rail across the Interstate 90 bridge. Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who's been pursuing that goal in court, has dumped more than $1 million into the initiative.
Tucked into Tim Eyman’s nine-page tolling initiative is a small item with big consequences — a ban on light rail across the Interstate 90 bridge.
The provision threatens a $2.8 billion plan to run light rail over Lake Washington, through downtown Bellevue and ultimately to Redmond.
Initiative 1125 opponents wonder if Eyman included the ban to gain the support of Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, a well-known light-rail foe who has plowed more of his money into the initiative than any other political cause in the past decade — nearly $1.1 million of the $1.35 million raised.
Freeman said he’d support the initiative regardless of the light-rail provision, but noted the measure is practically tailor-made for him.
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“One day (Eyman) walked in and said ‘maybe you’d be interested in this initiative’ and here was almost the exact list I would have written,” he said.
Eyman, for his part, said he included the wording that affects I-90 on his own without consulting Freeman, who owns Bellevue Square and other downtown properties.
In addition to the light-rail ban, 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 only go toward work on the road being tolled.
State officials say those changes would have a domino effect, unraveling plans to reduce traffic congestion and help finance costly highway construction, such as a new Highway 520 floating bridge, through tolls.
Freeman strongly backs the initiative’s tolling restrictions. But there’s no question the measure’s attack on light rail is important to him as well.
He spent years trying to kill light rail outright. And when that failed, after Puget Sound-area voters in 2008 approved extending light rail north and south of Seattle as well as to the Eastside, he’s tried to prevent it from reaching Bellevue.
Freeman has a two-pronged attack. He’s challenging the use of I-90 for light rail in court, arguing the bridge was built using some state gas-tax money and that the state’s constitution says those dollars cannot be used for nonhighway purposes such as rail.
Initiative 1125 is the second prong and takes a similar approach. Although the measure doesn’t specifically mention I-90, it says the state can’t use gas-tax or toll-funded lanes “for nonhighway purposes.” The intent is to prevent Sound Transit from converting the bridge’s center lanes to light-rail tracks.
The question is why?
Especially considering that the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Roundtable and the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce all oppose I-1125.
“I think it’s familial, ideological opposition to light rail going back generations,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
Four decades ago, Freeman’s father, Kemper Freeman Sr., opposed Seattle-area rail-transit proposals called Forward Thrust.
Then-U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson had secured nearly $900 million in federal money to cover three-fourths of the costs, if voters approved local bonds to help pay for the rail system. The measure was defeated and Atlanta got the federal money instead to build its rail system.
Freeman, 69, has seemingly picked up where his father left off, fighting Sound Transit’s light rail. The arguments against rail transit haven’t changed much over the decades, he said. “I would say clearly he was right,” Freeman said of his father.
He considers light rail a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars, arguing that it moves too few people for the amount of money being spent and that there are cheaper ways to get the job done — namely by widening highways and using bus rapid transit.
As for the Bellevue light-rail plan, Freeman said construction would take years and prove a major traffic disruption to his properties, including Bellevue Square.
“I have no care how people get here. But I need them to get here,” he said. “If the customers can’t get here, we don’t have a business. That’s true about much of downtown Bellevue.”
Bellevue City Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she’s had many conversations with Freeman about light rail, and that’s the message he’s given her as well.
She disagrees, noting there was a lot of anxiety a few years ago regarding major construction of the Northeast Eighth Street and Interstate 405 interchange.
Traffic planners found ways to maintain traffic flow in the heavily congested area during construction, she said, and they’ll have to do that again with the light-rail project.
The route under discussion would climb from the I-90 bridge to an elevated station and a 1,400-car park-and-ride on Bellevue Way, follow 112th Southeast to downtown, go into a tunnel and push through the Bel-Red corridor to Microsoft’s Redmond campus.
“We’re going to have to make it work. Because the other answer is, don’t make any investments, don’t try to improve the transportation system because the act of constructing the improvements is too disruptive,” Balducci said. “That’s a recipe for long-term failure.”
Sound Transit’s view
Sound Transit considers the I-90 bridge necessary to getting light rail across Lake Washington.
Agreements among local, state and federal officials dating back decades talk about using the center lanes for transit. Although there was some discussion of using the Highway 520 floating bridge, planners have stayed with I-90 as the best option. That choice has been cemented in by Sound Transit.
The new Highway 520 floating bridge is being designed so it could later be expanded to handle light rail. But Sound Transit said there’s no money to do so, plus there are technical reasons I-90 is a better option for an initial link across Lake Washington.
Freeman’s argument against using I-90 for light rail centers on the 18th Amendment in the state constitution, which says state gas-tax collections must be “used exclusively for highway purposes.”
Federal dollars paid for 86 percent of the I-90 bridge section with the center lanes, according to state research. State gas-tax dollars paid the rest. Sound Transit has reached an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to reimburse the state for gas taxes used — roughly $69 million — and pay rent for ongoing use.
Sound Transit also is building two new HOV lanes on the bridge as a replacement for the center lanes.
The federal government says there were no strings attached to its funding and no reimbursement is needed.
Freeman maintains the constitution doesn’t allow the state to simply sell the center lanes to Sound Transit. The 18th Amendment, he argues, means the center lanes must be used for motor vehicles and nothing else.
He took that argument to the state Supreme Court, which this year deferred making a decision on whether the state could sell or lease I-90’s center lanes for light-rail use, saying the issue needed to go through lower courts first. Freeman and others are pursuing the case in Kittitas County Superior Court.
Initiative 1125, in essence, restates the constitutional argument and adds that any road built with tolls can’t be used for “nonhighway” purposes either. It’s not clear how that would affect any future proposal to put light rail on a new Highway 520 bridge, which would be funded, in part, with tolls.
Freeman, a former state lawmaker, recognizes that even if I-1125 is approved, the state Legislature can remove the light-rail ban with a simple majority vote after two years.
The initiative, he said, could at least buy more time so a way can be found to stop light rail.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com. Material from Seattle Times archives was used in this story.