Tim Eyman is good at finding hot-button issues to put on the ballot. His villain is usually an over-reaching government hungry for hardworking taxpayer’s money to be wasted on marginal government programs. But with his latest, Initiative 1125, he has partnered with a well-heeled benefactor singularly obsessed with another agenda: killing light-rail expansion to Bellevue.
While the partnership means that Eyman has hit the jackpot in terms of financing for one of his measures, the region is on the eve of taking a giant step backward. Initiative 1125 is the Tim Eyman-Kemper Freeman Way Back Machine — a roadblock to progress and an appeal to fear of the future.
Eyman’s first big win was I-695, the $30 Car Tabs initiative. It, like many of his initiatives, was actually thrown out in court and later passed by the state legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Gary Locke. The effects of 695 on our ferry system were well publicized at the time and have now come to pass. The search is on to find stable funding for the system.
Now, Eyman has joined forces with Eastside developer and real-estate owner Kemper Freeman Jr., who oversaw redevelopment of the Bellevue Square mall. Their target is tolling. At least that is what Initiative 1125 generally purports to be about. But, while the measure is also generating money and publicity for Tim Eyman, the initiative contains another important element of public policy, aimed at stopping light rail from making it across Lake Washington. Freeman has lost on the ballot as well as the state Supreme Court, although he is continuing to pursue an option through lower courts that the high court's April decision left open. When Sound Transit II passed in 2008 after the failed RTID package, which Freeman helped to defeat, he had to regroup and find another way to keep rail off I-90.
Freeman learned after the 2008 election that the people on the Eastside want light-rail service to be extended to their communities. But Eyman has given him a backdoor to defeat the popular will, and Freeman has opened that door wide. He has given Eyman over $1 million for initiative 1125.
The initiative sounds rather common sense on its face: Tolls should be set by the legislature and when the project is paid off, the charges should stop. And tolling should be one low price, no variable tolling allowed and certainly no corridor tolling or congestion pricing. The public in most quarters around the state will not realize the full impacts of their vote. It is unfair to expect voters in Wenatchee to know that voters in Bellevue voted to bring light rail to the Eastside or that light rail expansion is even part of the initiative. And that is exactly how the campaign wants it. But, while the focus is on tolling, there's also a provision directly aimed at light-rail plans for connecting Seattle and the Eastside on the I-90 bridge, banning the use of state fuel-tax money in ways that would include converting general purpose lanes to the rail use.
This initiative will appeal to people who are worried that times are changing too fast in our region. It will appeal to people who worry about being priced out and gouged by ever-growing expenses and stagnating wages. In short, it is the perfect Eyman initiative.
The only problem: the future is happening. Bellevue City Councilmember and former-Mayor Grant Degginger visited the Crosscut offices in September to talk about the big changes taking place in Bellevue and the Eastside. It is not the same Bellevue many in Seattle remember as kids. Somehow for many Seattleites it is preserved in our memories as if in amber, the “burbs.”
Degginger explained his city's transformation this way: Bellevue is now a city of 125,000 people. There are 16,000 kids in their public schools. Forty percent of the population is non-white. One-in-three people in Bellevue were born in another country. It has quickly moved from agrarian to suburban to urban. In short, it is a city that wants amenities that other cities have.
Remember that Sound Transit II vote? Bellevue voted in favor of it by 58 percent. Not only does Bellevue want light rail, city officials have been working on putting together funding for up to $160 million to fund a local share to build a tunnel for it. It would be hard to see the Sound Transit vote as some sort of a fluke: Degginger also noted that out of six state legislators in the 48th and the 41st districts, all are Democrats except for Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow.
Bellevue is at the geographic center of the Eastside. It is fundamental to the economic success of the Eastside and the Puget Sound region to be able to maintain mobility and be able to move people in, out, and through the city. Killing the Eastside Link Light Rail would be, in Degginer’s words, “a job killer.”
Beside the hidden light-rail issue, the initiative also raises the issue of how we are going to fund our transportation needs in the future. Gas tax revenues will not cover our transportation needs in the future. People are driving hybrid and electric cars, changing their driving habits, and demanding better transit. And the gas tax is losing its purchasing power because it was never indexed to inflation.
Being smarter on how we fund and manage our transportation system will be the key to our region’s success for the next 100 years. Tolling will be a part of the solution. And, contrary to the initiative's idea, we will need tolling as a system management tool, for maintenance and operation, as well as funding for the infrastructure itself.
Other needs besides light rail across I 90 are a new 520 bridge, the Highway 509 connection to I-5 in south King County, and the Highway 167 project which is a priority for the Port of Tacoma. If we get bogged down by being stuck in the past, we will lose our competitive edge and allow other states and countries to catch up with us. This Eyman-and-Freeman initiative may seem innocuous and give comfort for those of us worried about the future, but what it really represents is sticking our collective heads in the sand.
On the campaign trail Eyman is fond of saying that his initiative's limited tolling "is the way projects have always been funded for 100 years, and it’s worked just fine.” He is alluding to a small toll that is the same at all times of day and is removed upon the completion of the project, as was the case with the first 520 bridge.
There are a lot of things that have worked really well for the last 100 years. But it is the next 100 years that we should be planning for. As difficult as change can be, we cannot hide from it. And we should not be fooled by an initiative that satisfies our economic fears while, at the same time, circumvents the will of the people.