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Originally published November 9, 2011 at 9:19 PM | Page modified November 10, 2011 at 12:23 PM

No quick cascade of tolls from I-1125 defeat

Voters have rejected a Tim Eyman initiative aimed at restricting the use of highway tolls and blocking light rail from the Interstate 90 bridge. The latest vote tally on Wednesday showed Initiative 1125 was falling too far behind to catch up with the remaining votes.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — Voters have rejected a Tim Eyman initiative aimed at restricting the use of highway tolls and blocking light rail from the Interstate 90 bridge.

The latest vote tally Wednesday showed Initiative 1125 was falling too far behind to catch up with the remaining votes.

But don't expect a flurry of tolls soon. Although they are expected to start in December as planned on the Highway 520 floating bridge, other projects are years away.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said the state's move toward tolling will not happen quickly and will be done on a case-by-case basis.

"We're not out here throwing tolls at everybody in order to do whatever we want in transportation," Clibborn said.

It wasn't clear Wednesday if Eyman, who makes his living filing initiatives, was ready to concede. He could not be reached by telephone and released a written statement saying in part "we are very proud of the growing number of voters who approved I-1125 and look forward to finding out what the final numbers are next week."

The reality is I-1125 fell further behind with the latest vote tallies, now losing by 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent. The no vote Wednesday was getting bigger both in King County, home to a third of the state's electorate, and statewide.

I-1125, among other things, would have required the Legislature (instead of the state Transportation Commission) to approve tolls and would have banned variable-rate tolls, which charge more during peak driving times, and mandated that tolls go only toward work on the road tolled.

It also contained a provision intended to keep light rail from crossing the I-90 floating bridge and continuing into downtown Bellevue.

Tolls have already been approved to help pay for a new 520 bridge, but many more projects are likely to be tolled in the future, including:

I-405 HOT lanes: The state plans to create high-occupancy-or-toll (HOT) lanes, which depend on variable-rate tolls to ease traffic flow, on Interstate 405 between Kirkland and where the highway joins Interstate 5 to the north. The state Department of Transportation says the tolls could start by 2014.

The state says the variable rates help manage traffic congestion by allowing solo drivers to pay to use the HOT lane, freeing up room in other lanes. Money generated from the tolls would be used to complete I-405 improvements.

Highway 99 tunnel project: The state is considering variable-rate tolls to help pay for work, including digging a tunnel under downtown Seattle, to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Up to $400 million could come from toll-backed bonds. Tolls could be levied by 2016 if the tunnel opens by then.

New Columbia River bridge: The state is looking at using about $1 billion in toll-backed bonds to help pay for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the river. State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said her department is studying preconstruction tolling of the existing bridge, like the state plans to do with Highway 520.

"It earns more money, helps buy down the amount you need to borrow and generates a revenue source early," she said. "That's a policy question the Legislature will need to grapple with."

If the Legislature were to give the OK, tolling could begin as early as 2013, she said. Otherwise it would start when the new bridge opens, possibly around 2017.

Clibborn has said the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington also would likely be tolled at some point to help pay for the new Highway 520 bridge.

Other potential tolling projects on both I-405 and I-5 are being discussed, but they are just in the talking stage, Hammond said.

Wide gap

Statewide, the votes counted Wednesday came in 56.2 percent against I-1125 and 43.8 percent in favor.

The measure's defeat is largely the result of a big no vote in King County, which overcame support in Eastern Washington and more rural parts of the state. Spokane County joined King County in voting no.

On Wednesday, the King County vote was 66.2 percent against, much higher than Tuesday's 60.4 percent.

Outside King County, the no vote was 52.1 percent, compared with 47.9 percent on Election Day. The pro-1125 side would need 63.5 percent of the remaining votes outside of King County to close the gap, assuming King continues at its pace.

King County has counted about 58 percent of its total expected ballots. Outside the county, about 74 percent of the expected votes have been counted.

Political analysts give various reasons for the large no vote in King County, including voter wariness of Eyman.

Matt Barreto, a University of Washington associate professor of political science, noted that the opposition campaign focused heavily on the King County market.

"A large part of the debate revolved around (Highway) 520 bridge and I-90 across the lake," he wrote in an email. "People here in King County have more at stake on this issue, and at a time when the state government is slashing budgets, I think voters are saying we need to be smart about how we pay for infrastructure projects."

Christian Sinderman, a political consultant whose firm worked for the no campaign, said it concentrated its advertising dollars on the Seattle media market.

He said the no campaign spent little money in Clark County because of the expense of advertising in the Portland market. I-1125 was winning in that county with about 59 percent of the vote.

Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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