1. Over objections from the likes of anti-tax initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and state Sen. Pam Roach (R-31), the Washington Transportation Commission voted last night to adopt tolls on the 520 bridge between Bellevue and Seattle that will range from zero to $3.50 at morning and night rush hours (7 to 9 am and 3 to 6 pm). The tolls are intended to raise a little more than $1 billion for construction of a 520 bridge replacement.

Eyman and other anti-tax activists have argued that the commission had no authority to impose tolls on the bridge after the passage of Eyman's Initiative 1053, which requires all fee increases (like tolls) to be approved by a majority of the state legislature. In an informal opinion last month, state attorney general Rob McKenna agreed with Eyman, saying that the state legislature must approve any tolls.

"The opinion by the attorney general backs up what we've been saying since Day One: That fee hikes must be approved by a majority in the legislature and the transportation commission can no longer impose new tolls," Eyman said. "The legislature should not shirk responsibility for fee hikes by letting unelected officials decide what they should be."

2. Judging from the testimony from both landlords and tenants at yesterday's rental housing inspection stakeholders meeting at city hall, there is  little agreement about the ideal scope and frequency of rental-housing inspections---and even whether there should be a housing inspection program at all. (The city council is currently developing the program to identify substandard rental properties and punish wayward landlords and property owners.)

City council member Nick Licata set the stage by noting, preemptively, that the council voted unanimously to adopt a rental-housing inspection program, in keeping with state law that effectively required cities to do so. "You can, if you wish, debate whether the city should have [a housing inspection program] or not, but the city council has already voted on that," Licata said. "If this committee wants to spend its time saying, we don't like the ordinance, we want it overturned, you can go back to council with that recommendation [and]  lobby and see if you can get the votes to overturn it. [But] as it stands now, legally, it's on the books."

Not that Licata's admonitions did much to quell debate over whether there should be an inspection program. Landlords and former property owners on the group, which was appointed by the council, argued that there shouldn't be an inspection program at all, or that inspections should target only "bad" landlords.

"I recognize that there are owners out there and operators out there who don't comply with the law, but my assumption is that a rental housing licensing inspection program is not going to catch the majority of those people---they simply will not participate," said Washington Multi-Family Housing Association government affairs chair Joe Puckett. "You will have to catch them and find them. The best rental housing inspection program is going to allow a certain percentage of the bad people to simply slip through the cracks." Another advocate for landlords, Harrison Benis & Spencer partner Chris Benis, argued that any inspection program would unfairly target minor problems like temporary leaky faucets while failing to catch major problems.

In response, advocates for tenants argued that the prevalence of substandard housing in Seattle outweighs the possibility that some bad landlords might slip through the cracks. Noting frequent instances of lead poisoning at rental units around the county, King County Public Health investigator Nicole Thomsen said, "I do not believe, in any situation, that there is an OK time or place for the quality of somebody's health to be jeopardized by the quality of their housing."

Associated Students of the UW spokesman Andrew Lewis talked about a friend at the UW who lives on the unheated, plywood-walled front porch of a house in the University Park neighborhood---precisely the sort of substandard living situation the inspection program is meant to address. "I represent people that are living in probably some of the most deplorable rental housing in the city of Seattle," Lewis said, including "undergraduate students that are only expecting to live in the space for two or three years. They're not in it for the long haul---they'll take breathing in asbestos for a couple of years if they only have to pay $200 a month to do it."

The city's Department of Planning and Development is supposed to send a recommendation for a housing-inspection plan to the city council in late spring.

3. WSDOT and Seattle Tunnel Partners (the winning deep bore tunnel bidder) are signing the $1.09 billion contract today at the Port of Seattle. The overall $4.6 billion plan includes a $300 million pledge from the Port, money that Port has yet to identify.

Anti-tunnel initiative leader Drew Paxton said in a statement this morning:
“It’s ironic that WSDOT will sign these contracts at the Port of Seattle Headquarters when the Port still has not presented a plan for how they will fulfill their $300 million commitment to the project. What taxes will they raise?  What programs will they cut?  It’s astonishing that during these challenging economic times our elected leaders refuse to have an honest and open conversation about something as basic as how they plan to pay for a project with so much risk.”

Meanwhile, as PubliCola first reported last month, there are also some questions about STP.