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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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I-985 opposition peaking late

Even opponents of state Initiative 985, which would open HOV lanes to all traffic in "off-peak" hours and make other changes to state transportation policy, admit they got a late start and have limited funds. But they hope a radio ad, a leafleting campaign and a growing list of endorsements will counter the appeal of Eyman's measure.

Seattle Times staff reporter

What Initiative 985 would do:

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

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

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

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

End 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.

Tim Eyman says he's used to being portrayed as a threat to the public welfare -- but usually by campaign groups spending vast amounts of money to defeat his populist ballot initiatives.

"In the past, we've seen people yell and scream that we're going to destroy the planet, and they spend millions of dollars against us," Eyman said. "But in this case, it's all words and not a whole lot of action."

Even opponents of state Initiative 985, which would open HOV lanes to all traffic in "off-peak" hours and make other changes to state transportation policy, admit they got a late start and have limited funds. But they hope a radio ad, a leafleting campaign and a growing list of endorsements will counter the appeal of Eyman's measure.

"Each feature of the initiative has attracted its own set of opponents," said Doug MacDonald, the former state transportation secretary heading the opposition. "Everybody from police associations to the Sierra Club to labor to the Association of Washington Business."

As of this week, the committee promoting I-985 had reported raising $479,000 from more than 500 individual donors, while opponents had collected $179,000 from just a few dozen contributors.

"The problem for us is that the combination of the governor's race and the Sound Transit proposition has seized everyone's attention," said MacDonald.

I-985, on Tuesday's ballot, would open HOV lanes to all vehicles except from 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, a move Eyman says would speed traffic and be more fair to taxpayers, who pay for the highways.

But opponents say heavy traffic lasts longer than the hours Eyman specifies, and that maintaining HOV lanes is key to quality transit service. They argue that some HOV lanes aren't safe for general traffic.

The initiative also would create a state fund to fight traffic congestion, financed in part by 15 percent of the sales tax on vehicles and fines from cities' red-light surveillance cameras.

Law-enforcement worries

One of the most recent groups to oppose I-985 is the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, whose board unanimously voted to oppose the measure Oct. 21.

"Granted, we were latecomers to the party," said the association's executive director, Don Pierce, adding that the group seldom issues political endorsements. Pierce said law-enforcement officials worry Eyman's HOV-lane policy could make traffic congestion worse. But their major objection is the provision to divert "red-light" revenue to the state traffic fund.

"This is a way of killing programs that have proven very effective," Pierce said. In cities now using the red-light cameras, a substantial part of the money collected in fines goes to operate the equipment itself -- money a city wouldn't have if it were required to turn the revenue over to the state, Pierce said.

Eyman says if cities really believe the red-light cameras save lives, they should find another way to finance them. I-985, he said, simply removes the "profit motive" from the cameras.

As evidence of the cameras' profitability, he notes that two companies that supply and install traffic-signal equipment, Signal Electric of Kent and American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz., are among the biggest donors to the anti-985 campaign, giving $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Josh Weiss, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, which has installed red-light cameras in Seattle and other Washington cities, defended his company's involvement. "If the Eyman initiative passes, it would force camera programs to become taxpayer-funded instead of violator-funded as it works today," he said.

Last week, in a letter to state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, federal officials said I-985 could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds, aggravate congestion, increase air pollution and force the closure of some freeway-access ramps.

Eyman dismissed the letter as "a transparent attempt to try to scare voters," and predicted it would backfire and increase support for the measure.

Appealing to common sense

I-985's biggest financial backer by far is Woodinville investor Michael Dunmire, Eyman's key benefactor for the last several years. Dunmire gave $285,000 to the I-985 campaign committee and $100,000 to Help Us Help Taxpayers, Eyman's political-action committee.

Eyman himself loaned the initiative campaign $150,000 from a second mortgage he took out on his Mukilteo home, but he hopes eventually to recoup that, and more, from donations to the political-action committee.

A former watch salesman, Eyman supports himself promoting ballot initiatives, encouraging supporters to compensate him by giving money to his political-action committee.

He said he doesn't know how much money he'll receive for promoting I-985, but early this year he was paid $63,500 for work on last year's successful Initiative 960, a measure to make it more difficult for lawmakers to raise taxes.

The campaign for I-985 spent most of its money collecting the 300,000-plus signatures to get the measure on the ballot; financial reports show more than $493,000 in payments to Citizen Solutions for gathering signatures.

While opponents have scrambled to fund a radio commercial in recent weeks, Eyman said he's doing no ads -- or even yard signs or bumper stickers. Instead, he sends daily e-mails to supporters and the media and hopes the "common-sense" appeal of the initiative will carry the day.

Gary Chandler, a vice president of the Association of Washington Business, said his group supports the goal of reducing traffic congestion but opposes I-985.

"For us, a lot of it was a matter of timing," Chandler said. "When you're down as much as you are in the general fund -- three to three-and-a-half billion dollars -- now is not the time to be taking more away."

The state Office of Financial Management (OFM) says Eyman's traffic proposals would pull about $574 million from the state's general-fund budget over five years, money otherwise spent on education, public safety, social services or other government programs.

But Eyman says a more efficient traffic flow would help businesses and actually benefit the state's economy.

The candidates for governor are split over I-985: A spokeswoman for Dino Rossi said he's voting for the measure but not officially "endorsing" it. Gov. Christine Gregoire's camp says she is unambiguously opposed to it.

Eyman says the dozens of groups taking positions against I-985 don't worry him.

"The thing I've learned about endorsements is at the end of the day, they don't really matter," Eyman said. "We're going to rely on the common sense of the voter to decide, 'Is this a good thing or a bad thing?' "

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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