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Originally published October 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2008 at 4:09 PM

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Federal transportation officials say Eyman's initiative could be costly to state

Tim Eyman's transportation Initiative 985 could cost the Puget Sound area millions of dollars in federal funds, stall highway projects, aggravate traffic congestion, increase air pollution and force the closure of some freeway-access ramps, according to a letter this week from two federal transportation officials.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tim Eyman's transportation Initiative 985 could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds, stall highway projects, aggravate traffic congestion, increase air pollution and force the closure of some freeway-access ramps, according to a letter this week from two federal transportation officials.

"This drops a bomb on Eyman's traffic-management plan," said Doug MacDonald, the former state transportation chief leading efforts against the measure to open HOV lanes in "off-peak" hours. "It says every element of the initiative has either a problem or a huge question mark."

Eyman called the letter and its timing — coming as many people have received their ballots — "a transparent attempt to try to scare voters into not voting for 985. We think it's going to backfire."

"The taxpayers of Washington paid for our highways," Eyman said, "The voters may choose the policy they want. Elected and unelected officials work for the people, not the other way around."

Along with opening HOV lanes to general traffic, the initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot would put a portion of the sales tax on vehicles into a fund to fight traffic congestion, direct cities to synchronize stoplights to improve traffic flow and make other changes to state transportation policy.

The eight-page letter from regional officials of the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration was sent Thursday in response to inquiries from state Transportation (DOT) Secretary Paula Hammond and the King County Department of Transportation.

The letter says neither federal agency takes a formal position for or against I-985, but raises concerns about its potential effects, particularly opening HOV lanes to all vehicles except 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"This change has the potential to adversely affect traffic flow, traveler safety and the surrounding environment," says the letter from Daniel Mathis, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and Richard Krochalis, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration.

"In some locations, congestion begins as early as 5 a.m. and can last throughout the entire day until 7 or 8 p.m.," the letter says.

The federal officials don't specify how much federal money could be lost, but they note that federal allocations to transit agencies are based in part on a region's "fixed guideway miles" — miles open to unimpeded transit service, which could be reduced if HOV lanes are open to all motorists.

Another part of the letter says $63 million in federal money is available for a "variable tolling project" to improve Highway 520, but that the project is based on a multiagency agreement which includes provisions counter to Initiative 985. For example, it would keep one lane open only to vehicles with three occupants or more.

In general, the letter says, opening HOV lanes to all motorists could decrease people's incentives to car pool or ride the bus, leading to greater traffic congestion and more carbon-monoxide emissions.

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As a result, the region's air quality could deteriorate, possibly halting other federally assisted projects until pollution levels are reduced.

The letter lists nine locations along Interstates 5, 90 and 405 where "direct-access" ramps, built as a Sound Transit project, allow buses and car pools to enter and exit the freeway from HOV lanes.

Those projects obtained federal approval on the condition they not be open to general traffic. If I-985 passes, the letter said, "These direct-access ramps must be physically closed during times that the HOV lanes are open to GP (general purpose) traffic."

Eyman called the letter an "October surprise" and blamed its release and timing on Hammond and Gov. Christine Gregoire. He noted that Mathis in the past told state officials HOV lanes could be open to general traffic in off-peak hours without jeopardizing federal funds.

"Voters have come to expect opponents' threats, lies, and scare tactics when it comes to our initiatives; this is no different," Eyman said. "But once the voters approve I-985, the elected and nonelected officials who work for the people must implement the voters' policy."

Hammond on Friday said she's legally required to remain neutral on the initiative, and said soliciting input from federal officials was an important part of understanding what it might take to implement I-985 if it passes.

"It's important to make sure everybody knows what we know," she said.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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