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I-1125 puts taxpayers on hook for local toll projects

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 10, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
October 10, 2011 5:58 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Tim Eyman makes his living selling initiatives, which means he’s got to churn them out regularly to keep his paydays coming. Some have contained the germs of good ideas; others have been folly incarnate.

Initiative 1125, on this year’s ballot, falls under into the incarnate category. It sounds wonderful: a law to protect drivers from unreasonable highway tolls.

Scratch and sniff, though, and it turns out to be a monkey wrench aimed squarely at the state’s efforts to keep cars moving on overcrowded roads.
Its biggest defect is so stupendous that it’s hard to believe Eyman or anyone else in his shop anticipated the impact.

Tolls are commonly used to repay bonds that finance big transportation projects, such as the state Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington. The Legislature – like other legislatures throughout the country – delegates toll-setting authority to panels responsible for making sure the bondholders get the interest and principal they’ve been promised.

If highway projects in Washington started looking like bad loans, private financing for future projects would dry up. Like it or lump it, that’s the way capitalism works.

I-1125 proposes to vest toll-setting authority in the Legislature; its supporters crow about making elected officials accountable for the fees.

One problem: That would make toll-setting – by definition – a political exercise. The wizards of the bond market would look at Washington and say, “Hey, the loons in that Legislature might do anything if tolls became an election issue. We’ll stick to the 49 states that look serious about repaying our investors.”

The state’s general fund – i.e., all the taxpayers in the state – could then wind up on the hook for projects that chiefly benefit the drivers of one region, such as SR 520 in King County.

The whole idea of tolls is to require the actual users of a bridge or whatever pay more than the guy across the state who doesn’t use it. Seems reasonable to us – but I-1125 seems based on the premise that there’s something sinister about highway user fees.

There are other dumb things in I-1125.

It would forbid variable tolling, a strategy designed to relieve rush hours by encouraging people to make unnecessary trips before or after. This would also threaten plans to finance the replacement SR 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle, among other projects.

The initiative also contains a payoff to Kemper Freeman Jr., a Bellevue real estate magnate who opposes light rail. An innocent-sounding provision in the initiative would have the effect of sabotaging a planned extension of Sound Transit’s light rail system across Lake Washington to Bellevue on the Interstate 90 bridge.

Why should a state initiative tell Puget Sounders they can’t have the light rail system they voted for? Here’s a guess: It might have something to do with the more than $1 million Freeman paid to bankroll I-1125.

This initiative looks good only if you don’t look too hard. Nobody likes paying tolls on roads. But the toll on dumb ideas can be quite a bit stiffer.

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