Fast-Lane Reform (or) Highway Hogwash?

Tim Eyman claims his latest ballot measure will open empty lanes, cure congestion, and fulfill a state audit’s recommendations. Critics contend it will have the opposite effect—and will set back transit, too.

By Manny Frishberg December 18, 2008 Published in the October 2008 issue of Seattle Met

IF YOU’VE EVER CRAWLED along I-405 at 25 miles an hour while drivers with full passenger seats whiz by in the HOV lane, you can probably appreciate Tim Eyman’s latest ballot-box scheme for reconfiguring state government. His Initiative 985 would, among other things, open all high-occupancy vehicle lanes statewide to solo drivers at all hours except 6 to 9am and 3 to 6pm on weekdays. “Clearly we wanted to tap into the belief by people that, my gosh, you’re driving down this lane and you’re stuck in traffic and there’s this empty lane right next to you and it’s infuriating,” Eyman explains. “People pay a lot of taxes for these roads, and it’s reasonable to think they could use them at least some of the time.”

But that’s not all I-985 would do. It would also transfer about $125 million a year in state general funds to a new “traffic congestion relief fund” dedicated to synchronizing traffic lights, reducing state—patrol response times, and boosting roadside assistance for stranded motorists. Eyman contends that these “common sense” measures could reduce freeway delays and overcrowding by 15 to 20 percent. And he’s not the only one with a place on the November ballot who thinks that way. A spokesperson for Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi says his transportation plan is similar to I-985; as a state senator, Rossi pushed for years to open HOV lanes to off-peak solo drivers.

Eyman says he based I-985 on a performance audit that State Auditor Brian Sonntag conducted of the state Department of Transportation’s anticongestion efforts. (Such performance audits of state agencies were instituted by an earlier Eyman initiative.) “We’re not just pulling these things out of what we think was a good idea,” he says. “We’re just going, ‘Hey, these guys [the auditors] are transportation experts. They made some reasonable recommendations. The legislature wouldn’t adopt any of them.”

However, I-985 hardly replicates the audit report, which covers only the Seattle area, not the entire state as the initiative does. Eyman’s plan omits most of the auditor’s 23 recommendations. And its marquee measure, opening the HOV lanes to solo drivers, is never mentioned in the report.

“You’re stuck in traffic, and there’s this empty lane right next to you and it’s infuriating.” —Tim Eyman, Promoter, Initiative 985

Lloyd Brown, the Transportation Department’s chief spokesman, says Eyman’s claim that the state shrugged off the audit’s recommendations is “just untrue.” DOT must, like any audited state agency, respond point-by-point to the auditor’s report and implement its recommendations wherever possible, and Brown says the agency’s in the process of doing just that.

And DOT is already opening some HOV lanes to all comers. The lanes on I-405, one of the most problematic stretches of freeway in the state, have been open from 7pm to 5am since 2003. A two-year study of this trial found that traffic congestion “decreased slightly” during those hours: Average speeds improved by two to four miles per hour, not nearly the 15- to 20-percent improvement Eyman claims the I-985 package would achieve.

The audit report does urge the Transportation Department to finish building the “core HOV network,” in particular the HOV lanes on I-5 between Seattle and Tacoma, and to “aggressively” deploy high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes if an ongoing trial of these next—generation HOV lanes improves traffic conditions. High-occupancy tolls let solo drivers pay for the privilege of using HOV lanes when space is available, even during rush hour. The Transportation Department is currently testing a HOT lane on crowded Highway 167 east of Renton. Initiative 985 would kill this option by opening HOV lanes to all solo drivers, not just those who pay the tolls.

Eyman’s plan would also forbid using money from the initiative’s traffic-congestion relief fund for mass transit—even though the audit report emphasizes transit and vanpooling as alternatives to solo driving. I-985 might also reduce the pool of money available for transit by earmarking a portion of the general fund for roads.

“Lanes that are dedicated to carpools and buses [create] a really great alternative.” —Mike O’Brien, President, Sierra Club, Cascade Chapter

Mike O’Brien, president of the Sierra Club’s Cascade Chapter, says I-985 would hurt transit in another way and reduce the incentive to carpool by eliminating HOV lanes as a streamlined route for buses and other multioccupant vehicles. “If we have lanes on our roads that are dedicated to carpools and buses so that they can get around traffic, it creates a really great alternative,” says O’Brien. “When you get on a bus and it’s stuck in traffic, it’s just not a very good experience. If you take those people and stick them in traffic, as opposed to in free-flowing lanes, it doesn’t do much good.”
I-985 also includes a broad provision that goes beyond traditional congestion-reducing measures. It would require that any tolls the state collects (and officials are looking hard at collecting more) be spent only to improve, expand, and maintain the specific roads or bridges on which they’re collected. Eyman contends this is needed to stop the state from using tolls as a hidden tax: “They’re viewing tolls in a way that it’s just like a tax, where you can impose it on anyone and spend it on anything.”

Floyd McKay, a journalism professor at Western Washington University who has critiqued I-985, disagrees: “A toll is a fee, not a tax—taxes impact everyone in a region or even a state. A fee is levied only on those who use the service.” McKay notes that Initiative 985’s toll restrictions would block DOT from using tolls on highways such as I-90 (which doesn’t need funds for improvement or expansion) to dissuade drivers from jamming it when the alternative route, Highway 520, gets tolled. In other words, this anticongestion initiative could lead to more congestion on free roads.

If it passes at the polls, I-985 will face another hurdle. At least one of Eyman’s previous initiatives has been overturned for violating the state constitution’s ban on multisubject ballot measures. I-985 does comprise a variety of measures, but he argues that because they all serve the same goal, reducing congestion, it will pass muster. Even if the state Supreme Court disagrees and tosses the initiative out, voters will have another chance to vote for the same policies, in the person of Dino Rossi. How both the initiative and, in a close race, the would-be governor fare may hinge on how strong our lane envy is.

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