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Washington has always trusted an expert commission to set tolls – why change that?

Having been in the business of selling initiatives for more than a decade (and possessing a gift for media manipulation) Tim Eyman has become a master snake oil salesman. Every year, he develops a remarkably slick (yet shallow) sales pitch for his latest initiative. This year’s sales pitch has stressed a comforting theme – continuity. Eyman has been claiming right out of the gate in debates and public forums that I-1125 just keeps things the way they’ve always been.

The longer version of his talking point goes something like this:

I-1125 ensures that tolls are set and collected just the way they’ve always been, keeping one hundred-year old protections in place that keep project costs from getting out of control.

These aren’t Eyman’s exact words, but the above paragraph comes pretty close to what we’ve seen in Eyman’s frequent emails to supporters and the press.

What’s disingenuous about Eyman’s claim is that I-1125, if implemented, would actually require the state to abandon an important tradition, rather than keep it. See, for decades and decades, we’ve always trusted an expert commission to set toll rates. These days, it’s the Washington State Transportation Commission.

But it used to be the Washington Toll Bridge Authority.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, which took over WTAB’s responsibilities when the Authority was dissolved in 1977, WTAB “maintained full authority to set the toll rates from their inception until it disbanded.” Thereafter, the Washington State Transportation Commission gained the power to set tolls and ferry fares.

The Toll Bridge Authority existed for nearly half a century. It was created by House Bill 506, an act of the Legislature in the 1937 legislative session. H.B. 506 was introduced on February 12th, 1937, and passed by the Senate on March 9th, 1937. It was signed by Governor Clarence Martin shortly thereafter.

H.B. 506 was part of the Legislature’s effort to establish a uniform highway code. Up until that time, laws governing highways had been passed as needed; there was no coordinated or consistent set of regulations governing highways.

The Toll Bridge Authority’s initial members were:

  • Governor Clarence Martin
  • Lacey V. Murrow, then the state’s Director of the Department of Highways. (One of the I-90 spans across Lake Washington is named for Murrow).
  • Olaf L. Olsen, Director of the Department of Finance
  • Ferd J. Schaaf, Director of the Department of Public Service

The Authority’s powers actually went far beyond setting toll rates – it was in charge of financing, designing, and constructing bridges as well. A United Press article on the passage of H.B. 506 was appropriately headlined, “State goes into bridge business.” The authority’s first major projects were the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the first floating bridge over Lake Washington.

In 1951, the Legislature created another body, the Highway Commission, consisting of five members, all appointed by the governor (but subject to Senate confirmation). The Highway Commission, the Department of Highways, and the Toll Bridge Authority coexisted with each other for some twenty-five years, until 1977, when the Department of Highways morphed into the Department of Transportation and the Highway Commission became the Transportation Commission.

A few years later, in 1984, the Legislature transferred the Toll Bridge Authority’s powers and responsibilities to WSDOT and the Transportation Commission, and the Authority was disbanded.

Why is this history relevant? Well, again, it shows that Washington has always trusted an expert commission to set toll rates.

Here is what Tim Eyman doesn’t want you to know: The modern Transportation Commission is actually comprised of knowledgeable citizens, not “unelected bureaucrats”, as he has claimed. Most of the commissioners have experience in both the public and private sectors – they were appointed to serve on the commission because they know something about transportation.

Eyman likes to portray them as a faceless, nameless group so he can put them down more easily. He acts as if he knows more about transportation planning than they do, when in fact, the truth is just the opposite.

The seven members of Washington’s Transportation Commission are as follows:

  • Dick Ford, Chair. From King County. Currently senior counsel at the law firm K&L Gates. Previously served as executive director of the Port of Seattle. Has served on many local and regional transportation boards.
  • Philip Parker, Vice Chair. From Clark County. He is a retired Journeyman Electrician. Has represented Greater Vancouver on many local boards tasked with looking at workforce development and transportation issues.
  • Tom Cowan. From San Jan County. He is a public policy consultant. Previously ran the Northwest Straits Commission and served as San Juan County Commissioner for twelve years. During his tenure, he also served as President of the Washington Association of Counties.
  • Dan O’Neal. From Mason County. Serves on the board of Greenbrier Companies, a publicly traded company that leases and manufactures railroad cars. Previously served as Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission and Transportation Counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee.
  • Anne Haley. From Walla Walla County. Has three decades’ worth of experience in managing public libraries. Has also served on a variety of boards and commissions, both at the state and local levels.
  • Jerry Litt. From Douglas County. The past president of the Washington County and Regional Planning Directors’ Association. Served the City of Lacey as its Director of Planning for thirteen years before moving to eastern Washington. Helped develop the Apple Capital Loop Trail.
  • Joe Tortorelli. From Spokane County. A lifelong resident of the Lilac City who loves to cycle and ski. He is an economic development consultant. Previously served on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s Advisory Committee and on the board of the Spokane Area Good Roads Association.

The biographies above are shortened versions the ones on the commission’s site.

The Transportation Commission takes its obligations seriously. Its members do a lot of traveling around the state so they can hear from communities in every corner of Washington; they don’t just hold meetings in Olympia. Gathering public input is one of the commission’s top priorities (for instance, it sponsors the Ferry Riders’ Opinion Group). Just because the commissioners don’t have to run for reelection doesn’t mean they’re not accountable or accessible.

Several readers and reporters have asked us why Eyman keeps picking on the Transportation Commission. Since he despises the Legislature so much, why does he want the Legislature setting tolls? What’s wrong with lawmakers delegating their toll-setting authority to independent commission comprised of experts?

We think the answer to that question is that Eyman wants to politicize tolling decisions. Eyman has never been interested in good public policy. What he is interested in is destroying public services and wrecking government. Attacking elected officials is his favorite pastime. If lawmakers have to take a vote every time a toll needs adjusting, that potentially gives Eyman fodder for future initiatives – and it gives Republican operatives more fodder for attack ads during campaign season.

The last thing our state needs is another self-serving Eyman initiative.

The people of Washington State have consistently voted over the years to entrust important responsibilities to expert commissions. Examples include the Public Disclosure Commission (responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws) and the Redistricting Commission (charged with redrawing the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts every ten years).

Eyman has tried to make it sound like people are clamoring for the Transportation Commission’s authority to be taken away.

But that’s not the case. When the Legislature voted during the 2011 legislative session to re-empower the Commission to set tolls, there was no public outcry. There was only an Eyman nastygram.

I-1125 wouldn’t even be on our ballots except for Kemper Freeman Jr.’s money. Even the Yes on 1125 website, written by Kemper’s operatives, admits that Kemper paid for the I-1125 signature drive.

If I-1125 goes into effect, it will needlessly end our long tradition of having an expert commission set tolls, which will affect Washington State’s borrowing costs. (The state has long been planning to sell bonds secured by toll revenue to finance critical highway projects, as other states routinely do).

As long as the Transportation Commission is in charge of toll-setting, borrowing costs stay low. But if I-1125 goes through, it would raise our borrowing costs, jeopardizing plans for the new SR 520 span and the Columbia River Crossing.

By rejecting I-1125, we can keep critical projects on track and assure bondholders that future adjustments to toll rates won’t be made in a politically charged environment. Join us in voting NO on Tim Eyman’s I-1125 starting next week. Keep our roads safe, and keep Washington rolling.


  1. Mark Cotter
    Posted October 18th, 2011 at 1:20 AM | Permalink

    I would make an educated guess that I-1125 is unconstitutional as it appears to fail the one subject test. The section that would stop light rail from crossing the I-90 bridge has absolutely nothing to do with highway tolling.

    Requiring the legislature to set tolls, and prohibiting variable tolls, would also seem to be two separate subjects.

    That would mean I-1125 has at least two, and possibly three, separate subjects.

  2. Andrew
    Posted October 18th, 2011 at 9:47 AM | Permalink

    That may very well be true. It’s also possible that I-1125 could be unconstitutional in other respects. Attorney General Rob McKenna has previously said, for instance, that no state law can prevent the Legislature from choosing to delegate its authority, if it wishes. A provision in I-1053 (from last year) was intended to force the Legislature to set tolls, but the Legislature overrode that and re-empowered the Transportation Commission to set tolls.

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  1. By Morning Rundown for October 17th, 2011 on October 17th, 2011 at 9:35 AM

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