By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Doug McDonald believes that I-1125 will completely halt transportation progress, hurting struggling families.<!–more–>
Tim Eyman believes that Initiative 1125 will prevent struggling families from losing thousands of dollars a year to bridge tolls.
So who is right?
“They want to toll every major highway, bridge, road, and street in the state,” said Eyman, during an initiative debate organized by Sea Beez at the Life Enrichment Bookstore. “It’s a huge, huge shift, a really radical change. We think that with such a huge decision, the voters need to be told about it. … We’ve already watched state and local governments, politicians and bureaucrats, and business and labor divide up these billions of dollars that they’re going to be collecting, but at no time did they ever come to the voters and tell them what they are planning on doing. Our initiative plans to give voters much more of a say.”
Eyman is one of the cosponsors of I-1125, which he says would protect toll revenues from being used for non-transportation purposes. Also, the initiative requires that tolls be dedicated to the project they are paying for, and that they end when a project is completed.
“Nobody in state government is talking about tolling Rainier Avenue,” said Doug McDonald during the debate, trying to make the point that Eyman was incorrect when he said the state aims to toll every road. McDonald was the Washington State Secretary of Transportation, retiring in 2007, and he is against I-1125.
“What they are saying is that people who live in Bellevue might help pay for that big project across the 520 bridge,” said McDonald. “But [Eyman is saying], ‘No, other people can pay for it.’ That’s nonsense and anti-progressive. It can hurt this community.”
The real costs?
“When a project is paid for, the toll [should] go away,” said Eyman. “And everyone should pay the same toll. All tolls [should be] uniform and consistent. It’s the way it’s been for a hundred years in the state of Washington. These were the rules for the 520 bridge, the I-90 bridge, the Hood Canal Bridge … the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Our opponents say it’s impossible for us to go forward with transportation with these rules, but 100 years of history shows that that’s not true.”
Eyman’s initiative also states that tolls should be set by the legislature, to be uniform and not at the discretion of what he calls “unelected bureaucrats.” Currently, the Washington State Transportation Commission is designated by law as the state tolling authority.
Bonding is used nationwide as a source of funding for transportation capital budgets.
Basically, construction of transportation facilities, such as bridges, is financed through bonds, which are later repaid.
According to McDonald in a recent tvw.org Q&A, the 520 bridge project is structured to be financed by tolls to “pay back bonds that would pay for some of its cost,” which means that some of the cost burden is carried by users, not solely taxpayers.
McDonald argues that because I-1125 says tolls must be set by the legislature, investors will not buy bonds at favorable rates because of political uncertainty. McDonald likened the situation to someone having a negative blip on his credit score affecting his ability to secure a favorable interest rate on a home mortgage.
The cost of the 520 bridge, McDonald argued, would either be much higher, or a larger proportion of it would be paid for by citizens through taxes.
Light rail’s role
“These projects are already astronomically expensive when the toll only goes to the project,” said Eyman. “What they want to be able to do is toll the project, but also be able to pay for all sorts of other Christmas tree ornaments around the idea of that project as well, which means the toll has to be even higher, to not only pay for the project, but all the other stuff as well.”
“What our opponents want to do is make tolls into taxes,” added Eyman. “Just a brand new revenue that they can do whatever they want with. … [The initiative] also states that everyone pays the same tolls. We shouldn’t have these variable tolls that disproportionately hurt the poor and the middle class, trying to essentially tax them off the road, making it so the road can only be driven on by rich people.”
One of I-1125’s big donors is Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who is a critic of light rail, believing it to be a waste of taxpayer money.
Sandeep Kaushik, a political and communications consultant against I-1125, pointed out this correlation during the debate, along with McDonald. Kaushik mentioned that one the provisions of I-1125 would forbid the state from using gas-tax-funded highway lanes for other purposes — like the light rail.
In 2008, voters passed the plan for construction of light rail links, including expansions to Lynnwood, Federal Way, and Bellevue. The East Link line would run through I-90, from Seattle to Bellevue.
“This is a plan that passed overwhelmingly in 2008,” said Kaushik. “Tim’s backers have tried to make the claim that it’s unconstitutional. They took that to court and they lost.
And now, they’ve come back with a provision that shows that this initiative is fundamentally anti-transit. It’s actually anti-road as well, because the net effect of all these provisions is that it will increase gridlock — political gridlock and real gridlock. On our street, it will either halt or delay major transportation projects and small transportation projects across the state that are critical to our future economic viability.”
“No other state in the country does what Tim wants to do and what Initiative 1125 requires,” said Kaushik. “Because it’s a bad policy.”
While Eyman ascribes to what he calls Washington’s historical definition of tolls — that they are temporary costs on Washington drivers to pay for specific projects — Kaushik doesn’t think that a characteristic of tolls is impermanence.
“Tolling is essentially a user fee,” said Kaushik. “People [should] pay for what they use.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.