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Voters may decide on opening
Washington HOV lanes

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times

Washington voters may get the opportunity to decide this fall whether to open all high-occupancy-vehicle lanes to all traffic during off-peak hours and weekends.

That provision is included in a sweeping transportation initiative filed yesterday with the Office of the Secretary of State by a group backed by Bellevue Square owner and freeway booster Kemper Freeman Jr. It wasn't included in a draft of the measure that began circulating around Olympia last month.

The initiative also would earmark 20 percent of the state's 28-cents-per-gallon gas tax, or 5.6 cents, to build more general-purpose freeway and highway lanes. That's down from 10 cents in the draft.

"Our transportation-planning system is broken, and no significant road capacity has been built in more than a decade," sponsor Dick Patten said.

The group that filed the initiative, Let's Get Washington Moving of Kirkland, must collect 198,000 voter signatures by July 2 to get the measure on the fall ballot.

Opening up the HOV lanes during off-peak hours "is one of the easiest ways to increase capacity," said initiative spokesman Brett Bader. "We all know it makes sense. Let's just do it."

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, who had called the draft of the initiative "wacky," disagreed.

"Congestion would just get worse," he said yesterday. "We don't believe there's going to be much of a nonpeak for a while."

HOV lanes are limited to car pools, van pools and transit, though last year the state Transportation Commission did vote to open some suburban lanes to general traffic after 7 p.m.

Bader said the initiative's backers decided to trim the share of the gas tax earmarked for new lanes from 10 cents to 5.6 cents because "we just spent more time looking at what was involved and the obligations the (Transportation) Department has. ... We want to be reasonable and responsible."

But MacDonald said the initiative still would require either big cuts in state highway maintenance, safety and rebuilding programs, or an increase in the gas tax.

The initiative also would earmark portions of the existing state sales tax on motor vehicles and weight fees paid by trucks for new highway capacity. Altogether, Bader said, the taxes would generate $8.56 billion over 10 years for projects that would be required to meet congestion-relief criteria spelled out in the measure.

While projects aren't specified, Freeman has in the past urged construction of 27 projects in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, including two to four additional lanes on Interstate 5 from South Tacoma to Skagit County and a new freeway from the Snoqualmie-North Bend area to south Snohomish County.

The initiative also would open HOV lanes to general traffic at all hours if an analysis shows it would reduce peak-period congestion.

State campaign-finance disclosure documents show Freeman's Kemper Development is the only donor to Let's Get Washington Moving, contributing $40,000 last month. More than $14,000 of that went to Olympia lawyer Jim Johnson, who Bader said was the initiative's chief drafter.

Johnson helped write tax rebel Tim Eyman's two most recent statewide initiatives, which were approved by voters and later upheld by the state Supreme Court.