Initiative 1125 calls for tighter rules on highway tolls

September 21, 2011

By Staff

Tim Eyman said that for him, Initiative 1125 isn’t so much about highway tolling as it is a continuation of the same idea he has been promoting with his various ballot issues for 18 years.

I-1125 would change the way state conducts highway tolling in several ways. Among other provisions, I-1125 would require the Legislature to set toll amounts — rather than the appointed Washington State Transportation Commission — and mandate that tolls end when the state finishes paying off projects funded by tolling.

Voters will decide on the initiative in November.

The basic idea behind I-1125 is that all new taxes or fees must be approved by the Legislature or put on a public ballot, Eyman said. Voters approved just those provisions last year when they passed Initiative 1053 with 64 percent in favor, he added.

I-1053 was Eyman’s primary 2010 initiative effort. The measure requires any state tax increase to receive a two-thirds majority in the Legislature.

He argues that Olympia politicians bypassed I-1053 when they let the Washington State Transportation Commission set the cost of tolls on the state Route 520 bridge.

But I-1125 opponents say there are several big problems with having the Legislature set tolling amounts.

Cynara Lilly, a spokeswoman for the Keep Washington Rolling campaign opposed to the initiative, said local residents should be worried about I-1125’s effects on the much-publicized plans to rebuild the state Route 520 bridge.

Among other concerns, Lilly said the initiative would leave a $500 million hole in funding for replacing the bridge.

Even closer to home for local residents, the measure likely would kill plans for voter-approved light rail on the Interstate 90 floating bridge.

Eyman argues such construction would violate the state Constitution. I-1125 mandates that state transportation money — including toll collections and gas taxes — cannot be used for nonhighway purposes, which would include the proposed light rail system. The initiative provision simply restates what the Constitution already requires, Eyman said.

An avowed opponent to I-1125, Doug MacDonald served as the state secretary of transportation from 2001-07.

If the Legislature were to set toll rates, MacDonald said, the state would have a lot of trouble selling capital improvement bonds based on toll collections. Bond rating services and others involved in bond sales would worry that politics might play too much of a hand in the collections.

State Treasurer James McIntire came to the same conclusion in a report on the initiative’s possible fiscal impact.

In a financial analysis of I-1125, McIntire said bond investors see the independence of toll-setting bodies as a “critical credit characteristic.” Having state legislators set tolls would be unprecedented nationally, he added.

“We simply cannot sell toll-backed bonds if the Legislature is the toll-setting body,” McIntire said in the report.

Eyman’s argument is that voters cannot hold accountable the unelected transportation commission, whom he labeled “bureaucrats appointed by the governor.”

The Washington State Republican Party agrees with him. On Aug. 25, the state GOP voted to support I-1125.

“I-1125 will require state government to stay fiscally prudent and has the added benefit of requiring elected representatives to set the cost of tolls, not unelected bureaucrats,” state party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said in a news release.

Lilly said GOP backing of the initiative didn’t surprise her.

“The Republicans are often in lockstep with Eyman,” she said. “We have both sides of the aisle on our team.”

Some other major provisions of I-1125 would require tolls only be used for projects on the road or bridge being tolled and, again, that the tolling come to an end when the project was paid off. Eyman said current rules allow the state to collect tolls indefinitely.

For his part, MacDonald argued that maintenance and other costs don’t disappear when a capital improvement project ends.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com.

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