For Spokane residents who haven’t dealt with a local tollway since the booths came down on the Maple Street Bridge in 1990, Initiative 1125 might seem like a ballot measure more important to the west side of the state.
Not so, say supporters and opponents of the initiative that occupies the top spot on the Nov. 8 ballot. They don’t agree, however, on the key reason it’s important to Eastern Washington.
Tim Eyman, the chief architect of the proposal and its primary spokesman, said voters in Spokane and throughout Eastern Washington should care about I-1125 because of democracy. It reasserts that the Legislature, not an appointed board, must set toll rates.
“That’s taxation without representation,” Eyman said of the old system of tolls set by the transportation commission, which was shifted to the Legislature last year under another of his proposals, I-1053, but lawmakers could shift it back. “It’s too much power to put into the hands of unelected people.”
Doug MacDonald, former state transportation secretary and chief spokesman against the measure, said they should care for financial reasons. Tolls on large Western Washington projects, like the expansion of the state Highway 520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, help cover some of the costs of those roads and bridges.
“Users ought to pay more than everybody else,” MacDonald said. “You take (tolls) out of the equation, the cost falls back on everybody.”
I-1125 doesn’t outlaw tolls, but it would put restrictions on them. The toll that is collected could go only for that specific project; when the project is paid off, the toll must go away. A toll would have to be consistent; it couldn’t be varied to charge more at peak hours and less at slack hours.
That’s the way the state has structured tolls for at least 100 years, Eyman argues. Collecting a toll on one project to pay for work on another project is really a tax, he contends.
Those limitations were in place in the past, but circumstances change, counters MacDonald. Variable tolling is being used around the country, and collecting a toll on the Interstate 90 bridge to help pay for the 520 bridge – which has been proposed but not decided – is not so far-fetched.
“Everybody’s trying to get across the same lake. They could all pay the same toll, and make it lower,” MacDonald said.
While Eyman says making the Legislature set tolls serves as a brake on the temptation to raise them, MacDonald argues tolls are actually set by the marketplace. The key is to find the “sweet spot” where tolls are low enough to maximize use but high enough to help pay for the project, and that’s better done by a small commission.
“When was the last time the Legislature could figure out that sweet spot?” he said.
Turning the authority to set tolls over to the Legislature is one of the reasons Greater Spokane Incorporated joined the Association of Washington Businesses and other chambers of commerce in opposing the initiative. The Spokane City Council, in a 5-2 split, decided Monday to urge voters to reject the measure, too.
No other state gives its Legislature that authority over tolls, and GSI President Rich Hadley said members were concerned that would make Washington’s toll-backed bonds hard to sell.
If large projects can’t get a portion of their money from toll-backed revenue bonds, they’d likely compete for more revenue from the gasoline tax that pays for projects around the state. The North Spokane Corridor might compete with the 520 bridge for tax money, Hadley said.
Some of the state’s biggest businesses, like Boeing and Microsoft, oppose it, as are many unions.
Others like the National Federation of Independent Business, comprised mainly of small businesses, and the Washington Retail Association have come out in favor of the measure. “Retailers don’t want tolls to wind up being never-ending taxes,” said Jan Teague, retail association president.
Eyman said he’s not concerned about the possible imbalance of groups lining up against I-1125: “Groups don’t vote. Voters vote.”