The smarmy faux populism of I-1125

Tim Eyman and company claim they just want to help the poor folks who can't afford higher tolls at rush hour. Don't believe them.

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Traffic on the SR 520 bridge

Tim Eyman and company claim they just want to help the poor folks who can't afford higher tolls at rush hour. Don't believe them.

Even for an urban-rail skeptic like me, there’s lots not to like about Initiative 1125, the Tim Eyman-spawned, Kemper Freeman-sponsored ballot measure that would severely limit the collection and use of highway tolls, ban congestion pricing (a.k.a. dynamic or demand-based tolling), and, by the way, block voter-approved light rail to the Eastside. Plenty of other critics, including Crosscut’s Jordan Royer, have dissected the pernicious effects I-1125 would have if it's passed this Tuesday. But they don’t seem to have considered the smarmy rhetoric and bogus data used to sell it.

As in previous campaigns against gas taxes and transit funding, backers wrap I-1125 in faux populism, proclaiming that “it's time to stand up for the 97 percent of us who choose to drive cars everyday.” Did that slogan's crafters suspect how closely they’d echo the “99 percent” banner of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Will “We Are the 97 Percent” bumper stickers appear on local Beamers and Lexuses? And just which 97 percent are they talking about? Considerably more than 3 percent of Washington’s adult population doesn’t drive at all, for reasons of age, legal status, choice, health, and wealth or its lack.

I wanted to ask the I-1125 campaigners where they got that number, but their website was no help; its “contact” button merely helps you “contact your elected officials.” So I cast around and found one possible source: a report by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics on long-distance travel. It says that “for trips of less than 250 [but more than 50] miles, 97 percent of trips are by personal vehicle.” But that’s hardly apposite; 99 percent of trips are less than 50 miles.

The magic number 97 does appear in two urban-transportation contexts. According to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (“Georgia’s Only Free-Market Think Tank”), the Atlanta Regional Council “projects automobiles will represent 97 percent of all trips in 2025.” And Los Angeles city planners note that in 1990 L.A., “87 percent of all home-to-work trips and 97 percent of all other trips” were made “primarily by car” (whatever “primarily” means).

But L.A. past and Atlanta future — two nightmare examples of sprawl and auto dependence — are hardly the same as Seattle, or even King County. When it comes to transportation planning, workplace commuting is what counts; it drives demand and highway capacity. And according to the 2010 census, only 53 percent of workers in Seattle drive to work alone. Sixty-two percent in King County and 73 percent statewide do — a lot, perhaps, but a lot less than 97 percent. The rest don’t fret about rush-hour tolls. They either use the HOV lanes (which, you may recall, a previous Eyman initiative sought to open up to solo drivers), or they don’t use the highways at all.

So “We are the 97 percent” seems to be yet another unfounded, ungrounded slogan for our times. And it’s not the only dubious populist argument mounted against congestion pricing. I-1125’s backers contend they’re fighting on behalf of those who can’t afford to pay higher tolls during peak hours to use the Lake Washington bridges or the HOT (high occupancy/toll) lanes on other highways. “If tolls go up during heavy congestion,” the initiative’s sponsors contend, “only those who can afford the increased tolls will benefit, while those that cannot will be forced to remain in general purpose lanes that will be more heavily congested.” Better, they insist, to charge “the same 24/7… just the way it’s always been” — say, $2 any time day or night, rather than $3.50 during rush hours, $2 in early afternoon, $1 at midday and in early evening, and nothing at night. Better, and fairer.

In fact, this good ol’ fashioned scheme is not only blatantly unfair, it’s contrary to the principle of pay-as-you-go user fees that conservatives endlessly extol. With one standard toll day and night, those who use highways in the off hours, when demand is slight, subsidize the extra capacity required for commuters who use them during peak hours. And who are those peak-hour commuters? Disproportionately, they are higher-paid professionals and managers, who work 8 to 5, or 9 to 5, or, for some doctors and bankers, 9 to 3, and then pile onto the highways.

Some workers on the lower rungs — janitors, kitchen workers, childcare workers, cashiers — work those same hours. But many work swing, graveyard, or irregular shifts: dishwashers and bussers who finish dinner service at 11 pm, the folks who empty the wastebaskets and polish the desks after those lawyers have gone home, minimart clerks and the night line at the cookie plant. Congestion pricing would actually reduce their commute costs — if they drive to work at all.

I don’t know if Tim Eyman and Kemper Freeman know anyone trying to make a go of it after starting from near-zero — someone who’s recently arrived as a refugee, or escaped from domestic disasters, or served his time and gone straight, or otherwise rebounded from one of life’s little wipeouts. I do, and those I know don’t worry about tolls or gas taxes; for them an automobile is an unthinkable expense. What hurts them is the rising cost and limited availability of public transit.

U.S. Census data confirm this impression: The less money Washington workers earn, the more likely they are to commute by transit or carpool rather than single-occupancy vehicle — with one exception that proves the rule, which I’ll get to in a bit. Those earning less than $10,000 a year, $10,000 to $15,000, and $15,000 to $25,000, all drive less and carpool more than the statewide average. Those earning less than $15,000 depend disproportionately on transit. Those in all earning categories between $25,000 and $75,000 a year are more likely to drive solo and less likely to use transit or carpool than the average.

The aforementioned exception: Washingtonians earning more than $75,000 are no more likely to drive solo than the state average, and are about 15 percent more likely to use transit. Perhaps those figures are skewed by flocks of lawyers riding the Bainbridge Island ferry?

The contention that we must reduce or eliminate highway tolls, even at the cost of defunding transit, in order to help needy folks is a shameful successor to a familiar canard in the great gas-tax debate that preceded the current toll tangle. We can’t raise gas taxes, Eyman and company would piously intone, because they disproportionately hurt poor people, who drive gas-guzzling clunkers. Whatever truth that held in the 1970s and ’80s, when the cheapest cars were old guzzlers, is now lost. Today’s cheap cars are Kias and Yarises and Chevy Aveos, plus the odd old Rabbit or Justy. Unless they’re one step ahead of the repo man, poor folks aren’t driving Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades.

And the neediest aren’t driving at all. If you really want to help them, and everyone else, stop whining about peak-hour tolls and help provide affordable, available transit.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.