PubliCola's 2011 Election Ratings: I-1125

By PublicolaPicks October 19, 2011

Sticking with our commitment to be a more objective and balanced source of news (yep, this “liberal” site is the site that broke the story that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee got busted by the state for trying to transfer unlimited "surplus funds" from his congressional campaign to his campaign for governor), we’re doing things differently this year than we have in the past.

Inspired by the even-keeled Seattle/King County Municipal League's approach to candidates (rather than endorsing, the Muni League rates based on skill, experience, and policy acumen as opposed to ideology), we’ve been talking to candidates and interviewing folks on both sides of the ballot measures and coming up with our own ratings.

On ballot measures, rather than telling you how to vote, we’re identifying the best and weakest arguments from both sides.

Here's our take on I-1125, this year's measure to place restrictions on tolling in Washington State. We'll be publishing our ratings on the other initiatives and candidates over the next several days. (And here's our take on I-1183, the liquor privatization measure.)


Initiative 1125 would place new restrictions on how, where, and when tolls can be used in Washington State. It would restrict the use of tolls to fund the project being tolled; retire tolls as soon as a project is finished; require the legislature, not the independently appointed state transportation commission, to set toll rates; bar tolls from paying for transit or other non-highway purposes; explicitly prohibit light rail on I-90; and ban dynamic tolling, tolls that change by traffic level and time of day.

I-1125 would have an impact on nearly every major transportation project in Washington State, including the downtown Seattle deep-bore tunnel, the SR-520 bridge, the Columbia River Crossing, and, of course, voter-approved light rail between Seattle and the Eastside on I-90. With the state's ability to pay for bonds with gas taxes nearly tapped out, the state relies on tolls to pay for projects like the Seattle portion of the 520 bridge, which is supposed to be funded by tolls on I-90. 1125 would put the brakes on such projects---and would leave maintenance and operations unfunded after a project is built.

Top contributor for: Kemper Freeman, $1.2 million

Top contributor against: Microsoft, $700,000

Best argument for I-1125[pullquote]Fairness dictates that users of a road should pay only for that road---it makes no sense for people who drive across I-90 to subsidize the 520 bridge if they never use it.[/pullquote]

I-1125 restores fairness to our state's transportation system. Fairness dictates that users of a road should pay only for that road---it makes no sense for people who drive across I-90 to subsidize the 520 bridge if they never use it, or for drivers on I-90 to subsidize light rail if they never take it. Additionally, many workers, particularly low-income workers, can't decide when they have to show up for work, so higher tolls at rush hours disproportionately impact them. If people must pay tolls, it's only fair that they know how much those tolls will be---and that they don't have to subsidize projects they'll never use.

Most misleading argument for 1125

Legislators, not unelected bureaucrats, should set tolls because they're accountable to the people.

It's pretty rich to see Eyman---king of citizen initiatives that overturn legislative mandates---taking up the mantle of representative democracy by arguing that the legislature should set tolls. More to the point, there's a reason not one state legislature in the nation sets tolling rates: Investors are skittish about buying bonds backed by tolls that are subject to the whims of legislative politics. The legislature, incidentally, agrees: In 2011, after Eyman's 1053 gave them the authority to set tolls, they voted to re-delegate that authority to the appointed transportation commission, a group of experts not subject to political pressure from constituents.

Best argument against 1125 [pullquote]Without flexibility to use tolls on various transportation initiatives, including both roads and transit, projects across the state, will stall.[/pullquote]

Transportation improvements cost money, and the state is nearly tapped out. Tolls---like gas tax, sales tax, and property tax---are merely a tool to pay for the projects the entire state needs to keep our economy growing. State treasurer Jim McIntire says the gas tax, the state's main source for roads funding, is almost entirely dedicated to existing projects---and as the state and region continue to grow, the problem is only going to get worse. Without flexibility to use tolls on various transportation initiatives, including both roads and transit, projects across the state---from the SR 520 bridge, which relies on toll-backed bonds, to rail on I-90, to the Columbia River Crossing, to the deep-bore tunnel---will stall.

Most misleading argument against 1125

Tolls are a user fee---only those who use a tolled road have to pay for it.

The anti-1125 campaign is trying to have it both ways. Either tolls are a user fee---a fee to pay for a public good, paid only by those who use it---or they're a general fee whose proceeds can be spread throughout the transportation system. In essence, the anti-Eyman camp is arguing that they're both. But that isn't the way user fees work. We're all for user fees, but tolls on I-90 to pay for 520 don't meet that standard.

Some newspaper endorsements to check out: The Seattle Times endorsed a "No" vote on 1125, saying the measure "would make it more difficult to build needed roads and bridges." We've been unable to find any paper that has endorsed a "Yes" vote on the initiative.
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