A Washington voter initiative to ban rush-hour toll increases appears headed for the November ballot, after organizers collected more than 327,000 signatures.
The proposal, Initiative 1125, would, among other things, require that toll rates be set by the Washington Legislature, and that the rates would be steady throughout the day.
That could be a snag in the Columbia River Crossing’s financing plan, which, in part, relies on so-called peak period pricing to pay for the freeway project.
Tim Eyman, Washington’s populist initiative king, said the variable tolling ban is all about fairness.
The goal of variable tolling, Eyman said, “is to try and price poor people off the roads, to make it where it’s so expensive to drive that you’re not going to be able to afford to drive.”
Wealthier workers often have more flexibility in when they need to get to work, Eyman said, meaning they’ll actually be able to save money by avoiding the peak hour tolls.
“If you’re just that regular Joe getting to work, you gotta get to work on time,” Eyman said. “You shouldn’t be penalized for being poor.”
Representatives from the Columbia River Crossing project referred questions about the initiative to the Washington State Department of Transportation. WSDOT spokeswoman Janet Matkin said variable tolling is an important element in the Columbia River Crossing’s tolling program. She said the state’s department of transportation is analyzing the potential financial impact of the initiative.
Andy Cotugno, Metro’s chief staff liaison to the Columbia River Crossing, also emphasized the importance of variable tolling for the freeway project. Demand management has a key role in reducing congestion, he said.
A widened freeway without tolling, Cotugno said, simply creates “more storage space, not mobility.”
By paying a toll on a newer, wider freeway, “you’re buying time.”
He rejected the claim that variable tolling benefits the wealthy, pointing to research on tolled express lanes, derided in many places as so-called Lexus lanes.
“What we’ve found was the composition of users matches the population,” Cotugno said.
The origin of the initiative likely has little to do with the Columbia River Crossing. Parts of the initiative, including banning conversion of highway lanes for transit projects, seem specifically aimed at proposals for Seattle’s floating bridges over Lake Washington.
The requirement that legislators vote to set toll rates, Eyman said, is already in the law.
His organization, Voters Want More Choices, has about 80,000 signatures more than are necessary to qualify an initiative for the ballot. Most of the $680,000 the group has raised has come from Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, but Eyman said more than 1,700 people have donated to the campaign.
Washington State University Vancouver political science professor Mark Stephan said it’s hard to tell whether the 300,000 signatures will translate into a victory in November’s election. (By comparison, about 900,000 votes were needed to pass initiatives in the last off-year election.)
“A lot of people aren’t voting come November 2011, and it’s the more ideologically driven voters who show up,” Stephan said. “If he can get the voters that have supported his initiatives in the past to show up at the polls, and get them motivated to think about how they’re hurt by how the toll system is structured, that could help him.”
Nick Christensen is a news reporter for Metro, the elected regional government for the Portland metropolitan area. Christensen covers Metro issues and decisions from an objective point of view. His stories are not subject to the approval of Metro staff or elected officials, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro staff or councilors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-813-7583.
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