Paving the way

Road builders pour money into anti-transit Initiative 745.

CITIZEN INITIATIVE sponsor Tim Eyman drew taunts for buying a sport utility vehicle after organizing last year's campaign to slash the cost of car tabs. Now Eyman's opponents say he's chosen a new vehicle: an asphalt truck.

A political action committee set up by the Asphalt Paving Association of Washington paid more than $650,000 to signature-gatherers to help Eyman's Initiative 745 qualify for the ballot. Peter Thein, of the anti-745 Citizens for Real Transportation Choices, says that Eyman's onetime grassroots campaign has been hijacked by the construction industry. Unlike last year's Eyman-sponsored Initiative 695, which earned a spot on the ballot through the efforts of volunteers, the new initiative used well-paid professionals to collect the needed signatures. "With that sort of grassroots support, you can get a lot of people to sign," he says.

Eyman responds that the asphalt political action committee is simply a business group supporting an initiative designed to achieve an important goal—lessening freeway congestion. His Initiative 745 calls for state government to devote 90 percent of all transportation funding to building and maintaining roads. The measure would also mandate performance audits of all state transportation functions and eliminate state sales tax on labor and materials used in road repair.

Eyman says the people, not the pavers, put I-745 on the ballot. Some 270,000 state voters signed petitions to put the measure on this November's ballot, he says. "Last time I checked, I don't think there's 270,000 asphalt pavers in the state of Washington." He admits that the I-745 campaign needed a boost: An earlier version of the initiative that would have also eliminated carpool lanes proved unpopular with the public. So Eyman wrote a new initiative, discarded thousands of petitions, and started over from scratch. The asphalt pavers and Eyman are indeed strange political bedfellows: Many construction companies opposed his tax-slashing I-695 because the state's previous road repair plan relied on car-tab fees. Eyman detects a note of hypocrisy in his opponents' criticisms. "When these same people were spending money opposing 695, everybody thought they were the greatest guys in the world," he says.

WHILE THERE'S LITTLE doubt that self-interest plays some role in the asphalt PAC's support of more road-building, local contributors to the effort say that's not the whole story.

Construction companies are in the transportation business, says Robin Hansen, environmental manager for Redmond's Cadman, Inc. "We have lots of trucks on the road, and we're very concerned about them being able to get from point A to point B with a minimum of delay," she says. Transportation costs show up in the bottom line: The cheapest element of having a load of gravel delivered to a job site is the gravel itself—the real expense comes from the cost of transporting it.

Southeast Seattle's Emerald Paving makes its money pouring asphalt for tennis courts and driveways not state highways, says vice president Jay Demme. "I would have supported [I-745] anyway, even if I weren't in the construction business."

Demme says he's been disgusted by the neglect of highways, even as politicians gear up to build a billion-dollar light rail system, which he derides as "a toy train."

"The reality is goods and services don't get anywhere on mass transit. They've got to get there in trucks and vans," he says. "If we're going to be a vital economic area, we can't lose the advantages we've got."

Demme also feels that Eyman has uncovered a real sleeper of an issue in his proposed tax exemption for labor and materials used in state highway construction. According to the state Department of Revenue, about $53 million is collected annually through this taxing authority. That's $53 million in public money supposedly earmarked for construction that is being skimmed off and sent into "the black hole of the general fund," he says.

Eyman argues that the state's own transportation figures prove the 90-10 split to be a fair one. According to the Washington Department of Transportation, 94.6 percent of all trips in this state are made in private motor vehicles. The initiative grants the state permission to spend up to 10 percent of transportation revenues on alternative transportation projects, including transit, plus it specifically exempts fare-box revenues from the formula.

Assuming that the courts accept the broad definition of the term "highway purposes" contained in the Washington state constitution, I-745 would cut the nonroad portion of the state transportation budget roughly in half—from about $1.3 billion in the current biennium to about $705 million. However, as in the I-695 campaign, Eyman has few suggestions as to how the state can make up the difference. He dismisses talk of massive transit-service cuts as scare tactics and points to the state's budget surplus as a possible temporary source of cash to fill the resulting funding gaps.

THE 'NO ON I-745' campaign's Thein argues that Eyman's initiative is largely crafted to address a problem that he helped create. Before Eyman's tax-slashing I-695 was approved, state Republicans had crafted a $2 billion road repair and construction package, which was approved by the voters in 1998 as Referendum 49. "That $2 billion went away when I-695 was passed," he says.

Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, sees the asphalt paving PAC's financial support of I-745 as another blow to the initiative process. Court rulings allowing the use of paid signature-gatherers and prohibiting limits on private donations to initiative campaigns have combined to turn the former citizen lawmaking tool into money-based ballot access. She cites the charter schools initiative, I-729, whose signature-gathering campaign was underwritten by billionaire Paul Allen. "What used to be a citizens' effort, has become a single-interest, deep-pockets effort," she says.

Although Eyman started out as a devotee of grassroots democracy, his critics say the I-745 funding flap shows the initiative monger has sold out to big-money interests. There's evidence to support their opinion: A look at the June disclosure filing for Eyman's I-745 committee shows just $496 in citizen donations but $563,418 in signature-gathering money from the asphalt pavers PAC.

Pierini adds that state voters seem more willing to vote for complicated, confusing initiatives as long as they support the underlying intent behind them. This attitude has meant that many initiatives go straight from the ballot to court, as judges try to decipher the effects of these clumsily drafted laws.

"We think the voters should be doing their homework," she says. "We hope they are."

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