Initiative 1125 goes after highway tolls. It pushes all the hot buttons. Tolls are taxes, proponents say. Unelected money-grabbers look for ways to drain us, there is no accountability, they still don’t get it, etc. Whatever the emotional reaction to the words, the truth is Initiative 1125 will throw a giant wrench into the financial machinery necessary to build and maintain this state’s transportation infrastructure. The highways and bridges that will not be built if I-1125 passes are essential for mobility and prosperity. The projects that will be built, but denied toll-backed financing by I-1125, will drain resources, raise taxes and put other projects in doubt all across the state. I-1125 is not worth that, not even close.
I-1125 will make it more difficult to set and raise highway tolls. It will restrict who sets tolls, how toll revenues are spent, where they can be collected and for how long. That might bring temporary satisfaction to some, but it will shut down an important means to finance big highway projects. It will strain the already-limited resources for transportation funding, put upward pressure on the gas tax once again, and make it certain that more taxes from here will go to pay for the big projects over there. Projects delayed will increase costs and congestion and add to business and building expense everywhere. Initiative 1125 is an exceptionally bad trade.
The initiative, from Tim Eyman’s mill, is focused squarely on plans by the Legislature to use tolls to pay for parts of the giant, overdue highway megaprojects — multibillion-dollar urban necessities like a new 520 Bridge across Lake Washington, a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a Columbia River crossing at Vancouver, and others. Authority to set the tolls was given by the Legislature to the state Transportation Commission. Initiative 1125 would undo that. Only the Legislature would be able to set or raise highway tolls, subject to the usual long list of restrictions.
That is the critical element. The heavy projects like the 520 Bridge will be financed like all highways, through borrowing, mostly bonds backed by future gas tax revenue. The remainder will be bonds backed by tolls. Says state Treasurer Jim McIntire, an expert in finance and bond markets, if 1125 passes Washington will be the only state in the nation with tolls set by the Legislature, subject to all the political shenanigans and uncertainty that goes with it. That makes the security for the bonds vastly more uncertain, which means the interest rates will be prohibitively expensive. It will make those projects far more expensive, or undo the financing plans altogether.
If you think it good that a Seattle bridge will not be built, remember that if it is financed without tolls and entirely by gas-tax-backed bonds, that means other highway projects will be delayed or canceled. The gas tax is a limited resource, largely spoken for. It will have to rise again, here, so we pay more for the bridge, there.
It is much easier to deal with the idea that people who drive across the bridge will help pay for it. If the bond market is reassured by having tolls set by the governor’s appointees, instead of having them tossed around by politicians, then so be it. I-1125’s other restrictions, fair or unfair, stem from Puget Sound politics, transportation theory or the nagging desire to inconvenience government.
Remember, they toll for us. If we raise the cost of financing, if we limit options, we pay more. Vote no on Initiative 1125.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Editor and Publisher Rufus Woods, Managing Editor Cal FitzSimmons, Chief Financial Officer Janine Bakken and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.