A group, describing itself as “a diverse group of Washingtonians fighting to preserve and enhance our collective quality of life,” set up the website www.no985.org to oppose Initiative 985. Here are some claims made on the website.
Claim #1: “I-985 creates a new pot of money, but doesn’t say specifically how it will be used. Initiatives shouldn’t be vague on what will be done with your money.”
The “new pot of money” refers to the proposed “Reduce Traffic Congestion Account” that would be created upon passage of I-985. In fact, the language in the initiative sets out a series of guidelines for how the money can be spent.
The following is the passage in the text that delineates how the money can be used:
Expenditures from this subaccount may be used only:
(1) To pay for costs associated with the opening of carpool lanes to everyone during non-peak hours as required by RCW 46.61.165, including new and modified electronic and non-electronic signage, lane striping, improvements, and maintenance, and shoulder maintenance and improvements, including bumpers;
(2) To pay for costs associated with synchronizing traffic lights on heavily-traveled arterials and streets as required by sections 5 and 6 of this act;
(3) To provide increased funding for emergency roadside assistance as required under section 7 of this act; and
(4) To provide funding for the activities of the state auditor required under sections 5, 6, 7, and 10(7) of this act.
(5) After payment of costs identified in subsections (1) through (4), any other purpose which reduces traffic congestion by reducing vehicle delay times by expanding road capacity and general purpose use to improve traffic flow for all vehicles may be provided funding from the Reduce Traffic Congestion Account. Purposes to improve traffic flow for all vehicles do not include creating, maintaining or operating bike paths, wildlife crossings, landscaping, park and ride lots, ferries, trolleys, buses, monorail, light rail, or heavy rail.
(6) Revenue deposited in the account and not appropriated shall be retained by this subaccount.
(7) To measure the level of compliance with the policies, purposes, and intent of this act, the state auditor shall investigate and track the revenues and expenditures required by this act and shall report this and other relevant information to the public on a regular basis.
First, the guidelines describe how the money can be used, but they do not specify how much money should be used, or which projects are of higher priority. For example, in guideline 3, I-985 calls for “increased funding,” but does not specify how much more funding should be allocated toward emergency roadside assistance. One more dollar would count as “increased funding.” This may result in a broad interpretation of the law that does not comport with its intent.
Second, although six of these seven guidelines deal with how the money will be handled and spent, the language does leave open the possibility for unintended uses of the funds. Guideline 5 allows the funds in the RTC account to be used for “any other purpose which reduces traffic congestion,” except for the specific cases listed. If we accept the notion that it is impossible to plan for every contingency and situation, this guideline could allow the funds to be used for unanticipated projects.
Still, the final guideline empowers the State Auditor – an elected official who is accountable to voters – to oversee the expenditure of RTC account funds. This should provide sufficient transparency to the fund allocation process.
While there are ambiguities in the language that could lend themselves to broader interpretation or even abuse, the claim that the language is vague and that taxpayers won’t know where their money will go seems to be a slight exaggeration. Any monies would go toward traffic congestion relief and all expenditures would be subject to audit by the State Auditor.
Claim #2: “I-985 siphons more than $600 million in sales taxes over 5 years…”
According to a fiscal impact statement conducted by the Washington State Office of Financial Management, the estimated total deposits into the RTC account over a five year period would amount to more than $600 million – $622.5 million to be exact. However, that dollar amount does come only from sales taxes.
Over five years, the RTC account would receive deposits from three areas: sales and use taxes on motor vehicles ($573.9 million), fines paid by drivers caught by red light cameras ($39.8 million) and one percent of state appropriations for “transportation related public works projects” ($8.8 million).
Note: With respect to red light cameras, I-985 would mandate that municipalities hand over the money from fines paid by drivers caught by a local red light camera.
Claim #3: “I-985 takes money from Central and Eastern Washington’s taxpayers, and exports it to Puget Sound.”
First, the claim that the money will only go toward the Puget Sound area is mostly true. A report released in 2007 by State Auditor Brian Sonntag focused on traffic congestion issues in the Puget Sound, which is where traffic congestion is most prevalent. However, I-985 does not mandate that funds are used only in the Puget Sound region. In theory, the funds could be used in other parts of the state.
Because the majority of the revenue deposited into the RTC account would come from statewide sales and use taxes on motor vehicles, the funds would come from Central, Western and Eastern Washington alike.
However, of the 6.6 million people in Washington State, more than half reside in the Puget Sound region. So, those who would benefit from the congestion relief would also pay for most of that relief. Still, residents from other parts of the state would pay for projects from which they would not directly reap any benefits.