BUS-ted

Will the GOP ride Tim Eyman's transit-killing initiative to victory in November?

THE DISGRUNTLED taxpayers who gathered signatures to put Initiative 695 on the ballot have received some special packages in the past couple of weeks. They're Tim Eyman's "kamikaze kits," petitions and promotional souvenirs for a new initiative the I-695 sponsor hopes will be on the fall ballot. This one, Initiative 711, would, according to its ballot summary, "require that 90 percent of all transportation funds, including local transit taxes, be spent on road construction, improvement, and maintenance." Eyman's initiative clearly hopes to divert the billions in taxes that will be collected by Sound Transit for light rail, heavy rail, and buses in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties over the next 10 years to road construction. I-711 would also eliminate carpool lanes by opening them to all drivers at all times. Like I-695, Eyman's latest initiative, if passed, will almost certainly face numerous court challenges.

None of this matter to the "kamikazes." Eyman's nickname for his troops accurately describes their anger toward buses, trains, HOV lanes, and bike paths (though presumably Eyman supporters won't drive suicide SUVs into bus shelters). Once again Eyman has his finger on the hot button. According to lawmakers from across the state, including suburban King County, their constituents are clamoring for more roads while bashing mass transit. These road ragers may give Eyman what he needs to put I-711 on the ballot and carry it to victory this fall. The state GOP will once again be faced with supporting an Eyman initiative that gives many of its leaders deep pause; if the GOP swallows its reservations and throws its support behind the measure, I-711 could enable Republicans to pick up enough support to at least win control of the currently deadlocked State House of Representatives.

Republican Bill Finkbeiner, whose district includes neighborhoods in Kirkland, Carnation, and Woodinville, notes that his constituents voted for the Sound Transit plan to build a bus/rail system to cover most of Puget Sound. Still, Finkbeiner believes his voters might be attracted to a proposal that promises to bejewel their towns with more pavement. "I think they're going to react positively," he says. He says most of his constituents drive, and three years after Sound Transit passed they're still stuck in traffic. "People are saying, 'Do something to fix it,'" says Finkbeiner.

Representative Phil Fortunato of Kent says 60 percent of constituents who responded to a survey he sent out wanted their transportation dollars to go to road maintenance and construction. According to lawmakers, desperation for new roads outside of the Puget Sound region is increasing as well. Politicians representing fast-growing districts outside Sound Transit's area say their constituents are grumbling that Seattle has received too much transportation support at everyone else's expense. For example, Bellingham has become the 21st fastest-growing city in the country, says Bellingham Representative Doug Ericksen, a Republican. But only half the gas taxes Bellingham generates come back to the city in the form of transportation projects, he claims. "We have a huge need for road expansions," says Ericksen.

Some lawmakers are saying that their constituents feel a huge need to get into the HOV lanes as well. Representative Laura Ruderman, D-Redmond, believes that if her district signs onto the initiative it will be because of the HOV provision. "The HOV issue is a religious war on par with IBM vs. Apple," she says. HOV lanes are also controversial in Fortunato's district, and in Vancouver, whose senator, Don Benton, has introduced a bill to open HOV lanes to all drivers (it died in committee). Lawmakers say drivers are irked that in light of the congestion many suburban areas are facing, the state won't allow them to drive in lanes that often appear empty.

I-711 may eventually have the same mass populist support that I-695 did. Would Republicans get behind it like they did the last initiative? Some certainly would rather not. Luke Esser of Bellevue concedes that his constituents may approve this initiative. He thinks it's a bad idea, though, to give people outside the Puget Sound region a chance to veto Sound Transit. "With most Republicans [local control] is a popular concept," he says. He's not the only one who's miffed. Representative Tom Huff of Gig Harbor says he's "not enthused" with the initiative. Huff is co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which, in the wake of I-695 cuts, has a tough job ahead of it finding money for roads and transit. Huff has re-emphasized throughout the session that lawmakers need to respect I-695 and keep taxes low. Now, he says, it's up to lawmakers, not Eyman, to work out a way to fund both road and transit projects at appropriate levels.

But even Republicans who don't like the initiative can see its value as a bargaining tool as they try to secure as much road money as they can in the budget. "It's important for us to do as much as possible before we leave here," says Esser, anticipating what November's ballot might look like if they don't. Negotiations on the budget have yet to get really serious. But Finkbeiner says the ambitious road-funding proposals his suburban constituents would like to see won't materialize. Ericksen says that though he doubts that Bellingham would approve I-711, he would like to solve his district's road projects before Eyman can prove him wrong.

It remains to be seen how much Eyman's initiative will influence Republican rhetoric in the next few weeks when the big budget fights begin at the end of the legislative session or during this fall's elections. But one thing is clear: Eyman's initiative will not solve traffic problems. As Ruderman points out, it takes time to build a new road, and neither party can deliver the instant gratification that Eymanism seems to demand. Moreover, it has been repeatedly shown around the country that building new roads doesn't relieve congestion. But just try saying that to angry commuters. "It's hard to fight an emotional argument with a rational one," she says.

 
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