October 14, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Tolling initiative a halting proposition

 

Initiative 1125 would crimp highway tolling and impede the state’s ability to raise money for bridges, roads and maintenance. It could very well halt projects and cost the state jobs at a time when the economy is staggering. And while this might seem like a West Side story, the negative fallout would also drift our way.

Tim Eyman’s latest ballot measure has multiple features, which means it would probably be detoured into the courts as a possible violation of the single-subject rule. But if it were to pass and withstand legal challenges, the state might as well post the following signs:

PREPARE TO STOP!

This sign would be for motorists and those working on a variety of transportation projects. I-1125 calls for fixed tolling, meaning the same rate must be charged at all times. For the State Route 520 floating bridge, fixed tolling would raise an estimated 11 percent less than the variable tolling called for under current law, according to an analysis by the state Office of Financial Management. In addition, the federal government could require the state to surrender $123 million it awarded predicated on variable tolling. The state has already spent much of that.

The initiative states that toll revenue must be spent where it was raised. Transportation planners know that if the 520 bridge is tolled but nearby Interstate 90 is not, traffic will gravitate toward the free ride, causing nightmarish gridlock and digging a deeper financial hole for the 520 project. So they need the option of tolling I-90 in Seattle and diverting some of the revenue to the 520 bridge.

PREPARE TO PAY MORE!

OFM notes that I-1125 would also threaten other projects, including the Interstate 405 expansion, the Columbia River crossing that connects Vancouver and Portland, and the viaduct in downtown Seattle. With tolling, a Spokane resident who never traveled those West Side routes would avoid the charges. Even if visiting East Siders occasionally incurred the costs, it would be a small fraction of what West Side motorists would be paying.

If I-1125 passes, state legislators would have to set toll rates, rather than an appointed body of transportation officials. This could jack up the state’s borrowing costs by about 18 percent, says state Treasurer Jim McIntire. Potential bondholders prefer the stability of toll-setting that is focused on debt retirement and not the whims of political horse-trading.

If I-1125 passes, the state would have to emphasize more traditional funding sources, such as the gasoline tax. That would put projects that were to be financed with tolling in direct competition with Eastern Washington projects, such as the north-south freeway. We haven’t fared well in that battle over the years.

Furthermore, the gasoline tax doesn’t raise money as efficiently as it once did. Cars get better mileage, and will continue to do so. Drivers of electric vehicles, which will become more common, won’t be assessed at all.

Business and labor interests don’t agree on much, but they concur that this would be a terrible deal for the state’s economy. Vote no, or be prepared to face some depressing signs.


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