NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

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. 

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2 Comments

  1. 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.

    # by Mark Cotter :: October 18th, 2011 at 1:20 AM
    • 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.

      # by Andrew :: October 18th, 2011 at 9:47 AM

One Ping

  1. […] Wash­ing­ton has always trust­ed an expert com­mis­sion to set tolls – why change that? […]

    Ping from Morning Rundown for October 17th, 2011 :: October 17th, 2011 at 9:35 AM