This is curious. Washington state initiative-mogul Tim Eyman is known for writing ballot measures that appeal to eastern Washington residents, but give western Washingtonians—particularly in greater Seattle—a sharp poke in the eye.

This election season, though, Eyman has thrown his usual tactics into reverse.  His new ballot measure, called Initiative 985 (or I-985 to the…er…initiated), is ostensibly targeted at a problem that’s mostly focused in greater Seattle:  traffic congestion.  And the solution Mr. Eyman proposes is to suck tax revenues from all over the state, put the money into a special traffic account—and spend most of the cash on transportation projects in greater Seattle, leaving almost nothing for his political base east of the Cascades.

Huh?

I was puzzled enough by all this that I dug into the numbers a bit, just to make sure.  Could he really be alienating his traditional supporters so badly?

I-985 money flow chartWell, at this point, my best guess—well, at this point it’s more than a guess, it’s a near certainty—is that, yes, I-985 does in fact shift large amounts of money from Eastern Washington to the Seattle area. 

We looked in detail at the flow of revenue into I-985’s transportation fund, the required spending under the initiative, and the regional concentration of the congestion problems to which I-985 is directed. And whatever Mr. Eyman might hope or claim, I-985 would wind up shifting about $180 million in revenues from the rest of the state into greater Seattle.   Over 5 years, we expect that the average family of four outside of the Seattle area will ship about $229 in tax dollars to pay for Seattle-area road projects.

See the full report, with citations and methods, here.

So if Mr. Eyman has his way, folks from Spokane, Walla Walla, Vancouver, the Tri-Cities, and rural areas and small towns all across the state will foot the bill for increased transportation spending in the central Puget Sound.  And weirdly, it looks to me that even Pierce County loses out in I-985; the Tacoma area has fewer HOV lanes and less congestion than its neighbors to the north, so Pierce County residents would probably wind up shipping some money northwards.

Here’s how it all works…

  • Initiative 985 shifts 15 percent of all sales taxes on vehicles out of the Washington State general fund—which pays for statewide priorities like K-12 education and law enforcement—and puts it in a special transportation account.  It also takes dribs and drabs of money from other sources,  but sales taxes are the big enchilada. 

    Of course, people all across the state pay sales taxes for their cars and trucks, so I-985 sucks in revenue from taxpayers and consumers all across the state.

    Once money enters this account, I-985 allows the state legislature to use it for 4 purposes:  synchronizing traffic lights, increasing funding for emergency roadside assistance, changing the rules for managing carpool and bus lanes, and paying for traffic projects that can be used by single-occupant vehicles.

    But after diving into the numbers—particularly the cost estimates from the State Office of Financial Management—it’s quite clear that most of this money would, of necessity, be spent in central Puget Sound.  First off, 100 percent of the HOV lanes and ramps  that I-985 would affect are in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.  That’s about $224 million spent on carpool management changes right there.  Second, ninety percent of the severe traffic congestion in the state is in the central Puget Sound, and over 60 percent is in King County alone.  No other county outside of greater Seattle has even 2 percent of the total congestion in the state.  Just take a look at this congestion map, prepared by WSDOT (see this pdf).  It’s at a funny angle—you’re looking to the southeast:

    Hours of delay in Washington

    To me, this map shows one thing quite clearly:  any statewide policy targeted at fighting traffic congestion would, by necessity, focus most of its resources on central Puget Sound. That’s where the vast majority of the state’s congestion delays are located.

    Of course, I-985 would return a trickle of money to other parts of the state, mostly to pay for signal synchronization.   But it’s a trickle.  Most of the state is poised to get far less money than it puts in to the I-985 fund.

    Of course, nobody knows for certain what the legislature will decide to do with the money from the I-985 fund.  Still—and regardless of the specific estimates we came up with—any statewide policy that requires spending on traffic congestion and HOV lane changes will spend most of its money in the central Puget Sound.  That’s where the HOV lanes are, and where the worst congestion is.

    Most curious of all is that I-985 micromanages Puget Sound’s transportation policies in ways that are virtually guaranteed to make traffic congestion worse, not better.  I won’t get into it all right now.  But suffice it to say that the transportation engineers I’ve talked with—every single one of them—say that I-985 is a disaster for greater Seattle traffic.

    In the end, I’m not entirely sure what Mr. Eyman was thinking.  And I’m not sure what Eastern Washington and rural parts of the state will think, once they realize that Mr. Eyman is proposing a a massive shift in tax dollars from rural residents to urban Seattle.  I can’t imagine that they’ll be pleased, though.

    No on I-985  campaign website

    Deric Gruen provided invaluable research assistance for this post.  Thanks, Deric!  You’re a superstar.