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I-695 sponsor sets sights on gridlock with initiative

Eyman wants to direct spending to roads, away from mass transit

Thursday, December 16, 1999


OLYMPIA -- Tim Eyman, the Mukilteo watch salesman who sponsored the recent car tab tax rollback, is back with yet another initiative -- this one dealing with traffic congestion and highway construction.

Eyman's initiative, to be filed today with the Secretary of State, would:

  • End Sound Transit's plan to build a $3.9 billion train and bus transportation network in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, redirecting the money to a highway-building spree.

  • Require the state Department of Transportation to spend 90 percent of its budget on highway construction and maintenance, rather than mass transit, rail or other purposes.

  • Eliminate car-pool lanes, opening them to all traffic.

  • Exempt highway construction materials from the state sales tax, with savings plowed back into road projects.

    "Ninety percent of the people are just trying to drive their vehicles to get to work or drive trucks to get their goods to market," he said. "Moving people to a bus or a light-rail system is not solving the problem."

    He said politicians are "clearly petulant" after passage of his Initiative 695, which replaces the state motor vehicle excise tax with a flat-rate annual registration fee of $30 per vehicle, and requires taxpayer approval of most tax and fee increases.

    Eyman, is already pushing a "Son of 695" initiative that would roll back all tax and fee increases enacted between July 2 and the end of the year, as well as limit growth of property tax valuations to 2 percent a year.

    He said he's aiming his new "Traffic Improvement Initiative" for the statewide ballot in 2000. It needs about 220,000 signatures by July to make the ballot.

    "We have the volunteer infrastructure to walk and chew gum at the same time," Eyman said of his intention to push two initiatives next year.

    I-695, which takes effect Jan. 1, reduces revenue by $750 million, primarily affecting state and local highways, transit, ferries and city and county budgets.

    Several local governments have filed legal challenges in county courts, with the issue heading to the state Supreme Court for a final resolution.

    Reaction to Eyman's latest proposal was mixed.

    "This guy ought to run for the Legislature," said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. "As much as he said he isn't a politician, here he is being one."

    Dunshee said Eyman's proposal represents "Old World thinking."

    "It's so much cheaper to move people by transit and rail," Dunshee said. "We've tried to build ourselves out of road problems for 40 years, and we still have this mess."

    House Transportation Co-Chairwoman Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, a longtime advocate for rail and transit, said she will vigorously oppose Eyman's new highway initiative.

    "We cannot build our way out of this with new freeways, and I think that view is shared by a lot of people. I think this initiative is shortsighted," she said.

    David Chai, a spokesman for Gov. Gary Locke, noted that I-695 has wiped out most of the tax revenue for local transit and state ferries.

    "Using money from funds and accounts where there is no money will be difficult to do," Chai said.

    But Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the state has barely tried to keep even with needed highway construction. Rossi, who sponsored a bill opening car-pool lanes during off-peak hours, declined comment on the specifics of Eyman's proposal.

    But, he said, "It's going in the direction many of us have been trying to push. That's not to say mass transit doesn't have a role, but it's not the Utopia people say it is."

    Eyman said the idea of his initiative was simple: "Let's solve the problem."

    "Clearly, the politicians have decided to punish the voters (for passing I-695) by not solving the traffic problems," he said. "It is very clear that they have decided to let voters stew in traffic for another year to position themselves for a gas tax increase a year from now."

    The state Transportation Commission yesterday met to cut ferry service in response to I-695's passage.

    "It's a free country," said commission chairwoman Connie Niva, during a break in the commission meeting. "This makes it even more important that the people become acquainted with (transportation) issues."

    In Seattle, Sound Transit spokesman Denny Fleenor questioned the shift of his agency's revenues to roads.

    "This is a decision the people in three counties made to tax themselves for a mass transit system," Fleenor said. "And that's very much in line with the spirit of I-695 -- having people vote on their taxes. This does raise a question of whether voters from across the state could repeal a tax that voters in this region imposed on themselves."

    State lawmakers authorized Sound Transit, then called the Regional Transit Authority, in 1992. County councils in Pierce, King and Snohomish voted to form the agency in 1993.

    In 1996, voters in the urban areas of the three counties approved a 0.4 percent sales tax and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax to pay for the bus-rail system.

    Eyman, who works from an office in his home, said Sound Transit is "a multibillion-dollar boondoggle" and "social engineering" to get people to change commuting habits.

    Most states finance highway systems solely through the gasoline tax, he said, and Washington already has a high rate. The point of the initiative, he said, is to rearrange priorities to free up construction money.

    "It will be an interesting conflict between personalities and parties" in the upcoming session as lawmakers react to the new plan, said Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison. "Perhaps this (initiative) is a way of getting notoriety for getting some things they would like for the Legislature to advance."

    P-I reporters Rob Gavin and George Foster contributed to this report.


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