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Originally published October 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 21, 2008 at 9:20 AM

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Would ballot measure relieve traffic jams or worsen them?

Countless times, Tim Eyman says, he's seen freeway lanes jammed to a crawl at midday or during the evening, while an adjacent HOV lane is...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Initiative 985 calls for:

Opening car-pool and HOV lanes to all traffic except from 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Putting 15 percent of the state sales tax on vehicles, and revenue from red-light camera fines, in a state fund to reduce traffic congestion.

Requiring municipalities to synchronize traffic lights on heavily traveled routes.

Limiting the use of toll revenue to projects on the specific tolled route, with any excess going to the traffic-congestion fund.

Increasing funding for agencies to respond to collisions, disabled vehicles, spills and other things that impede traffic flow.

Ending a requirement for state transportation agencies to spend one-half of 1 percent of a project's cost on art, instead allocating that amount to the traffic-congestion relief fund. Highways already have been exempt from the set-aside for art; the measure would cut art money for transportation-related buildings, such as ferry terminals.

Vote | Would you vote to approve I-985?

Information on I-985

Voters pamphlet
Secretary of State's online voters guide (click on "State Measures")

I-985 campaign
voterswantmorechoices.com

Anti-I-985 campaign:
no985.org

Institute of Traffic Engineers: Objections to I-985
Westernite.org/Sections/washington

Washington Policy Center: Analysis of I-985 (PDF)
www.washingtonpolicy.org

Auditor Brian Sonntag's transportation report
Download PDF

Countless times, Tim Eyman says, he's seen freeway lanes jammed to a crawl at midday or during the evening, while an adjacent HOV lane is nearly empty.

"It just struck me as so fundamentally unfair," said Eyman. "Everybody pays for these lanes. You ought to be able to use them at least some of the time."

So Eyman, Washington's perennial initiative promoter, made opening those lanes in "nonpeak" hours a key part of his Initiative 985 on the Nov. 4 ballot. The measure would also create a state fund to fight traffic congestion, direct cities to synchronize traffic lights, restrict the use of tolls and make other policy changes.

Former state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, leading spokesman against I-985, acknowledges there's a "seductive appeal" to the notion of opening HOV lanes.

But he says Eyman's proposals would actually increase congestion, create traffic hazards, jeopardize federal funds for projects here, hamper efforts to build a new Highway 520 bridge and drain money from already depleted state coffers.

"It's not going to move us forward," said MacDonald. "It's going to set us back and forestall real solutions that do make much more of a difference."

Eyman said traffic congestion has reached a crisis point because state officials haven't made it a priority — a point he said has been noted by State Auditor Brian Sonntag. I-985, Eyman said, would "give Olympia a swift kick in the shins."

He disputes what he calls the "gloom and doom" scenario MacDonald paints, and even downplays the scope of his own proposals.

"We've done some really aggressive, bold proposals over the years. This isn't one of them," said Eyman, best known for measures to limit car-license fees and property taxes. "This one's about making some incremental progress, just moving the ball in the right direction."

Opponents beg to differ. "His ideas are coming from somewhere out in right field," MacDonald said. "Not even right field, but out in the bleachers."

For starters, MacDonald said, consider the money: According to the state's Office of Financial Management (OFM), I-985, by tapping into the sales tax on cars and other sources, would pull some $574 million from the state's general-fund budget over five years. That's money OFM says would otherwise be spent on education, public safety, social services or other government programs.

Eyman calls the money only "a sliver" of the state's roughly $15 billion annual general fund, and says improving traffic flow will ultimately benefit the economy.

The centerpiece provision would open high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes to all traffic except during the hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

But MacDonald says heavy traffic in the Puget Sound area has for years extended far beyond the peak periods the measure defines.

Keeping HOV lanes restricted to buses and carpools creates an incentive for people to get out of single-occupant cars. In addition, MacDonald said, state, local and federal agencies have been cooperating to build an extensive Puget Sound HOV-lane system, "but this puts a knife right through the heart of it."

Some freeway-access ramps, including those built as Sound Transit projects, were designed to accommodate a limited number of vehicles, particularly on ramps leading from, or into, the left lane of a freeway, such as Interstate 405.

Putting heavy traffic on those ramps would back vehicles up onto the freeway, creating a hazard, MacDonald said.

Letters from officials of the Federal Highway Administration approved those projects with the specific condition they not be opened to general traffic.

"We would be very concerned about a degradation of transit performance in that corridor," Tyler Duvall, a U.S. Department of Transportation undersecretary, said last week. But Duvall and other federal officials declined to say what steps they might take if the initiative passes.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond says she's staying neutral on the initiative, but she added, "I can see a conflict coming" if it passes.

Opening some HOV lanes in off-peak times could be relatively easy, she said, but in other spots, contracts with other government agencies and even environmental permits may inhibit or preclude the changes I-985 calls for. "We may need a court to help interpret and define that," Hammond said.

In addition, Hammond said, some HOV lanes may be hazardous for general traffic because they are narrower than regular lanes, built on shoulders or run close to guardrails or bridge supports. Hammond said she'd close an HOV lane entirely rather than operate it in an unsafe manner.

Members of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, including professionals who worked on many highway projects in Washington, issued a report saying Eyman's proposals would "increase congestion and possibly impact safety."

Eyman's response: "Those are some of the same transportation experts that have created this mess ... Let's try something different."

The Washington Policy Center think tank gave the initiative a generally favorable analysis, praising the fact that it ties public spending to relieving traffic congestion. But the center said there will be some drawbacks, including increased travel time on bus routes.

Anyone who wants to see a new Highway 520 floating bridge should oppose I-985, says King County Executive Ron Sims. The measure would limit the use of toll revenue to the route on which the toll is collected, with any excess going to the traffic-congestion fund.

"If you only limit tolls to 520, you cannot rebuild 520," said Sims, who favors tolling both the 520 and I-90 bridges. Sims predicts no one would buy bonds necessary to build a new 520 bridge if motorists could avoid tolls simply by using I-90, substantially cutting the revenue 520 tolls could generate.

In response, Eyman said if a toll isn't used on the project where it's collected, it's really not a toll, it's just another tax officials could spend wherever they see fit.

"Governments for all of history have said, 'But we really need the money.' " Eyman said. "That's no reason to just violate every principle that's ever been on the books."

Eyman notes that state House Speaker Frank Chopp was recently quoted as saying if tolls were collected on I-90, they should be used "inside the I-90 corridor."

On Friday, without elaborating on his position on tolls, Chopp issued a statement distancing himself from Eyman's measure. "I am completely and unalterably opposed to Initiative 985," Chopp said. "Passage of this misguided initiative will take money away from kids, families, and schools — and that's just wrong."

The unseen presence in every discussion of I-985 is Sonntag, who last year released a 222-page audit on traffic congestion, with a set of 22 recommendations.

Eyman says Sonntag's audit, and legislators' lack of action on congestion, inspired I-985. But opponents note that hardly any of Eyman's proposals actually come from the audit.

Sonntag, when asked about I-985, is cautious. "I hate to sound like I'm sitting on a picket fence," Sonntag said. "[But] I'm not part of Tim's initiative, nor am I part of the opposition to it."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or seattletimes.com">jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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