Federal highway cash might be at risk, officials say
SEATTLE – A letter from two federal transportation officials says Initiative 985, sponsored by initiative activist Tim Eyman, could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds.
The initiative is on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
The letter was written by Daniel Mathis, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and Richard Krochalis, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration.
The Seattle Times says the letter says the initiative could stall highway projects, aggravate traffic congestion, increase air pollution and force the closure of some freeway access ramps.
The eight-page letter was sent in response to inquiries from state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond and the King County Department of Transportation.
Eyman has said his initiative is designed to ease traffic congestion. He has said it would create a traffic congestion relief fund by tapping car sales taxes, revenues from red-light-camera tickets and the money set aside for art on transportation projects. The initiative also would require cities to synchronize traffic signals and open car pool lanes outside rush hours.
The letter, sent Thursday, says neither federal agency takes a formal position for or against I-985, but raises concerns about its potential effects, particularly opening high-occupancy vehicle lanes to all vehicles except 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Mathis and Krochalis didn’t specify how much federal money could be lost. But they said that federal allocations to transit agencies are based in part on a region’s “fixed guideway miles” – miles open to unimpeded transit service, which could be reduced if HOV lanes are open to all motorists.
Another part of the letter says $63 million in federal money is available for a “variable tolling project” to improve Highway 520, but that the project is based on a multiagency agreement that includes provisions counter to Initiative 985. For example, it would keep one lane open only to vehicles with three occupants or more.
The letter lists nine locations along Interstates 5, 90 and 405 where “direct-access” ramps, built as a Sound Transit project, allow buses and car pools to enter and exit the freeway from HOV lanes.
Eyman called the letter and its timing “a transparent attempt to try to scare voters into not voting for 985. We think it’s going to backfire.”
But Doug MacDonald, the former state transportation chief who is leading efforts against the measure, said, “This drops a bomb on Eyman’s traffic-management plan.”
Eyman also said, “The taxpayers of Washington paid for our highways. The voters may choose the policy they want. Elected and unelected officials work for the people, not the other way around.”
Eyman called the letter an “October surprise” and blamed its release and timing on Hammond and Gov. Chris Gregoire. He said Mathis in the past told state officials HOV lanes could be open to general traffic in off-peak hours without jeopardizing federal funds.
“Voters have come to expect opponents’ threats, lies, and scare tactics when it comes to our initiatives; this is no different,” Eyman said. “But once the voters approve I-985, the elected and nonelected officials who work for the people must implement the voters’ policy.”
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