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Group aims to block I-90 use for light rail

The Eastside Transportation Association (ETA) announced on Tuesday that it had filed a writ of prohibition against Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, which aims to stop Sound Transit from using space on Interstate 90 for light rail.

The ETA is a group of concerned citizens, business representatives and transportation professionals whose aim is to contribute to transportation decision-making and planning in the state.

The announcement, made by ETA Board Chair Jim Horn, came as ETA members gathered to hear a presentation by the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Toll Division Director Craig Stone.

The toll division has just been created by WSDOT for the purpose of investigating the potential of using toll money to help pay for much needed improvements to the Interstate 405 corridor and the State Route 520 bridge.

Horn, the former chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said that should state transportation officials allow Sound Transit to build part of the proposed east-west light rail service across the center lanes of I 90, they would be in violation of the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution.

The 18th Amendment states that roads built by the collection of fuel taxes can be used for road traffic only.

“In the constitution, it says what highways can be used for,” Horn said. “When they have been paid for by gas money, rail is not a valid use.”

The ETA is a co-signatory to the writ, Freeman v. Gregoire.

“This is not a threat against Sound Transit,” Horn said. “If they want to find another route, that’s fine. This is about giving up capacity.”

Horn’s claims that the writ is not about challenging Sound Transit might be hard to believe for those familiar with the history of transit developments in Washington — the senator has been quoted as saying that light rail is “the wrong approach” for the region, and once authored a regional tax package which explicitly prohibited funding for light rail.

During two terms in the state Senate, Jim Horn was chairman of the Highways and Transportation Committee.

He was the architect of the Nickel Package, which funded a 10-year, $4.1 billion capital projects program to address the state’s congestion challenges.

The Puget Sound area is now consistently rated as having some of the worst traffic in the nation.

At the meeting, ETA members described themselves as being “implicitly anti-tolls,” with some discussion of a process to formalize that position.

It is ETA’s view that the solution to traffic congestion problems lies in expanding highway capacity — more lanes, more efficient lane systems, more roads.

And so they listened with great interest to Stone’s comments about HOT lanes, or high occupancy toll lanes, which operate under similar principles as HOV lanes, but require single occupancy vehicles to pay a toll to use the lane.

The price of the toll, which is collected electronically, changes throughout the day according to real-time traffic conditions, in order to better manage how many cars are using which routes.

Such a system was introduced to sections of State Route 167 in May of last year, and Stone said it has been a success.

WSDOT is currently investigating the possibility of a similar toll system on the Eastside I-405 corridor, which refers to the 50-mile stretch from Lynnwood to Lakewood and provides the only major alternative to Interstate 5.

“We have seen an increase in speeds and an increase in volumes,” he said, adding that increased usage of the HOT lanes kept the price of the toll down, typically between $1 and $1.50.

Stone also referred to the success of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge electronic toll, which has been popular with area residents and helped fund the much-needed bridge.

The parallel to the floating bridge on 520 is easy to see, with proponents for a toll there claiming that the additional revenue would greatly speed up a project that the area urgently needs.

In March of last year, the Washington State Legislature created the 520 Tolling Implementation Committee to examine whether or not 520 toll revenue should be used to pay for more transit service across the lake, and how tolling 520 would affect commutes on I-90.

As raised by a number of ETA members, one of the big questions with tolling is exactly where the money for a toll should be spent.

Should toll revenue collected on a particular road be spent on improvements to just that road? Or should it also fund improvements to, for example, ferries and buses?

“That’s a policy decision,” Stone said, indicating that the political direction of those above him would do much to decide improvement options into the future.

WSDOT recently completed studies of the viability of tolling in seven major traffic corridors in the state, including the Lake Washington corridor, I-5 in central Puget Sound, and I-405/SR 167.

Stone said that, thus far, Washington drivers have embraced electronic tolling in numbers beyond their expectations.

One of the things that they are examining is whether HOT lanes would work better limited to cars with two or more passengers, and whether HOV lanes should be limited to three or more passengers.

“It is about balancing traffic management with revenue generation,” he said.

Mayor of Sammamish Don Gerend was one of a number of Eastside city officials at Tuesday’s meeting.

Gerend said he had voted against light rail proposals, feeling that it put “too many transit dollars in one basket.”

He added that the east-west line, as proposed in ‘Sound Transit 2,’ which stops at Bellevue or Redmond, would do little to help the people of Sammamish.

Gerend said the cost-benefit analysis completed by WSDOT showed that the biggest benefit for commuters is achieved by adding more general-purpose lanes.

“I personally support transit, but would like to see investment in general-purpose lanes also,” he said.

Gerend is also a member of the Transportation Choice Coalition, a group which focuses on transit, bicycle and pedestrian solutions, and the Eastside Transportation Partnership, a mixture of roads and transit supporters.

As part of a program of Eastside tolling outreach, WSDOT will be conducting a number of public open houses this month:

Aug. 19: Bellevue

Aug. 20: Renton

For more information, go to www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/EastsideCorridor.

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