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Originally published Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist

Tim Eyman's traffic initiative is bogus

Someone please give Tim Eyman a real job, so he can stop mucking up state government with initiative petitions intended to do one primary thing — keep money flowing to his full-time initiative business.

Someone please give Tim Eyman a real job, so he can stop mucking up state government with initiative petitions intended to do one primary thing — keep money flowing to his full-time initiative business.

Eyman's current fundraiser is the so-called Reduce Traffic Congestion (RTC) effort (Initiative 985), which is based on bogus premises, bad ideas and inflammatory rhetoric.

It could wind up actually worsening traffic congestion in the Puget Sound area.

Eyman maintains that I-985 supports Auditor Brian Sonntag's "congestion" audit of the Department of Transportation. Eyman hones an image of a heroic guy in a green eyeshade assiduously protecting taxpayers. Sonntag is an excellent official, but the audit was contracted to a huge international firm hiring specialists from all over the country.

Of 22 major recommendations in Sonntag's report, only synchronization of traffic lights is addressed in I-985.

The audit doesn't recommend limiting tolls on Seattle's bridges or high-occupancy toll lanes (HOTs), or opening HOV lanes in off-peak hours. It doesn't deal with freeway artwork or red-light cameras.

Eyman's initiative assumes car-generated congestion can be fixed cost-free without other forms of transportation. One of Sonntag's four general recommendations is "increasing efforts to have people use carpools, transit and telecommuting." Yet funds in Eyman's RTC account are barred from buses, rail or park-and-ride.

I-985 is premised on the same linear thinking that demanded multiple nuclear-power plants 25 years ago, the presumption that, regardless of price, electricity use would increase exponentially forever. Wrong. Four-buck gas will cause people to drive less, use other methods of transportation and buy smaller cars.

Despite reduced driving, transportation construction costs will rise. It will be increasingly important to adapt, to innovate — and, yes, the Department of Transportation needs to see beyond asphalt, the most expensive alternative.

But the rigidity of locked-in rules hampers DOT's ability to change.

Rigidity brings bad ideas, such as restricting use of bridge tolls. I-985 would prevent tolling Seattle's Interstate 90 Bridge to help replace the Highway 520 Bridge. Tolling both bridges would be more equitable and keep toll-avoiders from clogging the "free" bridge, worsening congestion. The bridges are inextricable parts of the regional commute pattern and cannot be separated.

It's a bad idea to write laws preventing flexibility. I-985 forces car-pool lanes open during "nonpeak" hours (peak is defined as 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and weekends. This prevents transportation planners from recognizing different patterns from one HOV to another, or the "creep" in rush-hour times; the audit describes 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. as afternoon rush hour, but I-985 writes 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. into law.

It's also a bad idea to address local issues with statewide mandates. I-985 orders all Washington local governments to synchronize traffic lights. Synchronization is already under way in the Puget Sound area but may be of less concern in other regions. Eyman intrudes on local governments again by snatching the money they receive from red-light camera fines and using it to finance his state RTC account. The unpopular cameras are the sort of "ballot candy" Eyman exploits, but if they are a bad idea, the remedy is at city halls where they are authorized, rather than a statewide vote.

Why should Seattle voters order Yakima to synchronize its traffic lights; or Yakima voters tell Seattle how to collect bridge tolls?

As usual, Eyman's inflammatory rhetoric paints all state bureaucrats (auditors currently excepted) as idiots who need the policing only he can devise. The rhetoric flows in the opening "Policies and Purposes" section of I-985, five pages (of 24) of populist rant that serves no purpose but to excite the casual reader before he or she gets to the actual text of the initiative.

Eyman piggybacks on initiatives already under way, to claim credit later. DOT is already making progress on synchronizing traffic lights and needs no mandate to continue. It also has, in the words of Sonntag's audit, "one of the most comprehensive towing programs designed for quick clearance in the nation." The greatest need is not more tow trucks, as in I-985, but more and better-trained state troopers, a costly item not addressed in I-985.

Eyman cynically works the anti-government impulses that everyone feels from time to time, playing us like a fiddle, exploiting lazy sound-bite media.

Eight years ago, I warned on this page that Oregon's professionalized government-by-initiative was moving north, and predicted, "as he (Eyman) and others figure out how to milk the system for money, they'll be back with other ballot candy."

It's not about traffic congestion, audits or even good government. It's all about the candy. It's all about Tim.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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