Election Guide: Traffic Congestion Initiative

The first thing you have to understand about Initiative 985 is that its backers and critics can’t even agree about what it’s supposed to do, let alone whether it will actually do it.

The latest brainchild of Mukilteo initiative maven Tim Eyman, I-985 bills itself as the Reduce Traffic Congestion, and its centerpiece is a proposal to open up high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to all traffic during “non-peak” hours.

By definition, “non-peak hours means midday and evenings on weekdays, and all day and all night on weekends,” the initiative states.

Midday is defined as from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and evenings on weekdays means from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

All of which means HOV lanes would be reserved for buses, motorcycles and carpools from 6 to 9 a.m. on weekday mornings and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekday afternoons. The rest of the day — including weekends — anyone could drive in them.

The “No on Initiative 985” Web site (http://www.no985.org/), however, states specifically that “Initiative 985 would make traffic worse by ... opening Puget Sound’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to all motorists during rush hour.”

So which is it? Evidently it depends on your definition of “rush hour.”

If you’re for the measure, six hours a day seems like plenty. If you’re against it, rush hour lasts 24/7.

Backers wonder why on earth drivers can’t use all the lanes their tax dollars have already paid for, while opponents argue that heavy traffic can extend well beyond the specific hours under certain conditions.

How can it hurt, the pro-985 forces ask, to open all the lanes when traffic volumes aren’t swelled by business-hour commuters? The foes counter by asking why the extra lanes would be needed if there is, in fact, less traffic during these “non-peak” hours.

“Initiative 985 does not invest in alternative transportation options, benefit rural Washington, encourage the development of livable, walkable communities, or help cut down on bumper to bumper traffic,” the No on 985 Web site insists. “Instead, it assaults our quality of life with a thoughtless and disastrous ‘more lanes good!’ approach.”

For Eyman, however, it’s about making the state and its transportation system more accountable.

“Taxpayers are tapped out,” he writes on his organization’s Website (http://permanent-offense.org/). “We’re sick and tired of tax increases, and we’re sick and tired of politicians refusing to fix public policy problems because they say we’re not paying enough.

“We’re already paying more than our fair share,” Eyman continued. “The problem is politicians aren’t spending our tax dollars effectively.”

The Washington State Auditor’s Office, he said,conducted performance audits on transportation that exposed Olympia’s “screw-ups,” and those reports form the basis for I-985’s policies.

In addition to opening carpool lanes for all but six hours a day, Eyman said I-985 will also:

• illustrate the public’s support for making reducing traffic congestion a top transportation priority;

• open up carpool lanes to everyone during non-peak hours;

• require local governments to synchronize traffic lights on heavily-traveled arterials and streets;

• clear out accidents faster with expanded emergency roadside assistance;

• use a portion of vehicle sales tax revenue for these policies;

• remove the profit motive for red light cameras;

• replace the percentage spent from transportation funds on public art to instead go toward reducing congestion;

• institute critical taxpayer protections on future tolls; and,

• empower the State Auditor to monitor the implementation of the initiative’s policies to ensure compliance.

“And maybe most important of all,” Eyman said, “I-985’s passage will tell politicians that voters demand that Olympia start implementing all of (the Auditor’s) performance audit recommendations under the authority that voters granted him with our 2005 initiative I-900. I-985 is a no-new-taxes transportation proposal that also reinforces the power and effect of the 900-pound gorilla. It’s an incredibly effective one-two punch.”

By contrast, 985 opponents argue the measure:

Contradicts the state congestion audit. I-985’s supporters say that it implements the recommendations of the State Auditor’s recent congestion report. They’re wrong. I-985 completely ignores most of the audit’s recommendations, and directly contradicts the audit’s suggestions on HOV lanes and transit.

• Makes key highway chokepoints worse. I-985 will gum up traffic on I-5, SR-520, and I-405, by turning bus/carpool lanes into general purpose lanes for 18 hours a day. I-985 will create even more congestion than we have today. (Imagine even longer backups on westbound SR-520!)

• Cripples carpools, vanpools, and buses. During rush hour, carpool lanes are the most efficient part of the road network: they carry more passengers (and sometimes more vehicles) each hour than general purpose lanes. And rush hour is getting longer each year. I-985 restricts carpool lanes to just three hours each morning and afternoon, which will cripple their usefulness in fighting congestion.

• Slows down transit. By eliminating bus-only and bus-priority lanes, I-985 will slow down transit, drive up costs, and shrink service. Slower and less reliable buses will encourage current transit riders to switch back to their cars—adding to traffic woes.

• Sets terrible transportation polices. I-985 goes against common sense and the best judgment of transportation experts. It redefines rush hour to exclude times when traffic is still heavy. It tries to open left-hand off-ramps to general traffic, creating crash risks. It outlaws HOV operations on weekends and off-hours—good luck with Husky, Mariners and Seahawks games. And it could require millions of additional spending for ramp metering for existing HOV lanes that would become general purpose lanes in “off-peak” hours.

So which side is right? That’s for the voters to decide.

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