by Matt Rosenberg September 27th, 2011
After holding a public hearing on the controversial topic of regional tolling, The City of Renton last night approved a resolution opposing Initiative 1125, which would restrict highway tolling. Washington voters will decide it in November. Renton, a growing suburban city at Seattle’s southern border, is at the junction of a multi-billion-dollar proposed tolling project that would connect Interstate 405 with State Route 167 and add tolled express lanes to both, as part of a broader toll-centric plan to unsnarl traffic and fund highway fixes in the Seattle region and elsewhere in the state. Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman sharply disagreed with the vote by the Renton council. Meanwhile, a new Survey USA poll reported today by KING5-TV in Seattle showed more than twice as many voters for I-1125 as against, but a crucial margin still undecided.
A many-faceted proposal
If approved, the ballot measure would take toll-rate-setting authority away from appointed state transportation commissioners and give it to legislators. It would also end any toll after the project it is funding is paid off; would disallow tolls from one facility or highway from being used for projects on another, or for transit; and would do away with current and planned variable-rate tolls based on time of day or real-time congestion, in favor of flat-rate tolls. Another component of 1125 would essentially block current plans to extend Sound Transit’s light rail system east across Lake Washington down the median of Interstate 90. The Renton resolution against I-1125 stresses the city council’s perspective that planned electronic tolling on major highways is a critical source of revenue for important transportation projects affecting Renton, the region and other urban regions in the state of Washington.
State has started regional electronic tolling on highways
Electronic variable-rate tolling – using overhead “gantries” which read vehicle dashboard transponders tied to user accounts – is already in place on a portion of State Route 167 and is expected to begin on the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington in coming months. Electronic tolls are also being discussed for the I-90 bridge across the lake, to minimize traffic diversion from a tolled SR 520 bridge and to help fill a more than $2 billion gap in a coming 520 bridge replacement that’s been approved to address safety risks during an earthquake or bad storms. The project has a $2 billion funding gap. Also to be electronically tolled is the new State Route 99 tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown Seattle waterfront in several years. As well, the state has also developed a plan for tolling some lanes of I-405 on the Eastside, continuing into SR 167. And legislators in recent months have broached the subject of tolling I-5, which has $2 billion in needed repair work in Seattle. Another highway being eyed by transportation officials and legislators for possible tolling is State Route 509 in southwest King County near Sea-Tac Airport and I-5.
Variable-rate electronic tolling is also in the offing for a new bridge across the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, and has been discussed in connection with a major highway project for Spokane.
Anti-tax crusader at the helm of I-1125
The ballot measure (full text) is sponsored by Washington state’s high-profile conservative ballot initiative King, Tim Eyman. The Pro-1125 campaign committee is called “Help Us Help Taxpayers 2011″ and according to registration forms filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, it is declared as related to Eyman’s standing committee called Voters Want More Choices. At this writing, according to PDC records, the committee has raised $40,256 (Full index of of pro-1125 committee’s PDC records). Opponents have formed a campaign committee as well, called Keep Washington Rolling (full index of PDC records). It has raised $169,634 as of today’s reporting. The “No” campaign on I-1125 includes business and labor interests and some environmental leaders.
Responding to the acton taken by the Renton City Council, Eyman said that municipal opponents of I-1125 “basically want a piece of the pie” for their own local projects if widespread electronic tolling proceeds across the region. The old, limited way of tolling should be maintained, but with more direct accountability to voters because under I-1125 legislators not appointees would set rates and tolls would be used only where they are collected and only until a road project is completed, Eyman said. He added, “Our initiative makes ‘forever tolls’ illegal. They can’t call it a toll and use it like a tax.”
Council member explains city government’s perspective
The Renton resolution against I-1125 passed 6-0. A mirror resolution supporting the initiative had also been prepared and was discussed at the Monday night council meeting said City Clerk Bonnie Walton, but only the anti-1125 resolution was brought forward for a vote. In an interview, Renton City Council Member Marcie Palmer said, “It’s a new era and things can’t be done the way they have been done in the past. There’s a lot of transportation infrastructure that’s deeply in need of repair” and gas tax revenues aren’t sufficient any more because of increased fuel efficiency, she added. Variable rate tolls in express lanes planned for I-405 would let people who need to be somewhere in 15 minutes get there on time, rather than half an hour late, and would also reduce congestion in un-tolled, general purpose lanes, Palmer said. “We are behind” in resolving transportation problems “in this state. It has increased the burden of time and cost to taxpayers” and “dickering” over decision-making has been a factor in that, Palmer asserted.
Latest poll results
Seattle’s KING5-TV reported today that a new poll by Survey USA showed 52 percent of registered voters would vote “yes” on I-1125 and 24 percent against it, with 25 percent undecided.
BACKGROUND: KING5-TV aired an in-depth “News Up Front” segment on September 18 examining I-1125, which included the viewpoints of proponents and opponents, and factual perspectives from moderator Robert Mak.
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