Workshop helps set rules for vote on toll roads
by Jeff Switzer
Members of the public reiterated their opposition and provided feedback at a workshop regarding toll roads on SR-522 at the Sammamish Valley Grange Nov. 2.
As part of the State Legislature's direction, the Washington State Department of Transportation held its fifth in a series of six workshops designed to get public comment on the rules for an advisory election on public-private initiatives, also known as the proposed toll roads on SR-522.
The funding for the major road improvements to SR-522 is simply not there, said Jerry Ellis, director of the Transportation Economic Partnerships Division. He said the DOT has been exploring the idea of public-private partnerships in addition to other creative ways the DOT can find funds.
The public-private initiatives (PPI) for SR-522, SR-520 and SR-16, which would place the roads in private hands for upgrades in exchange for tolls, are currently on hold pending the finalization of the administrative rules which would govern an advisory vote.
Because more than 5,000 signatures were gathered in opposition to the SR-522 project, the law set in motion a process in which the public affected by the project would be consulted about the proposed projects.
The workshops have given the public the opportunity to give their input as to the administrative rules the Department of Transportation will follow in conducting an advisory vote.
Though much of what is set out in the administrative rules is governed by the state law that dictates the process, fine tuning is required to set the legal language in motion.
The draft administrative rules governing the DOT include, as part of State Law passed earlier this year, that the Department of Transportation (DOT) would determine the area that would be affected by the PPIs and the creation of a local involvement committee (LIC).
Sitting on the LIC would be one elected official from each county and city within the affected area, to be appointed by those governing bodies; two members supporting and two opposing the proposed projects from each county within the affected area, each appointed by the county's councils; and four public members active in statewide transportation organizations.
Following its creation, the LIC would serve in an advisory capacity to the DOT relating to the advisory election. The election results would go through this committee, which would make a final recommendation to the secretary of the DOT.
But the advisory election would not be binding: A "yes" vote for the go-ahead on toll roads does not necessarily mean a "yes" recommendation from the LIC to the secretary of the DOT.
And a "no" vote from the public wouldn't necessarily translate into a "no" recommendation.
This non-binding aspect of the process was a cause for concern at the workshop, where several members of the public were disturbed that their "votes" weren't really votes.
Representatives from the DOT and State Representative Ian Elliott said that in order for the vote to be binding, i.e., a definitive yes or no on the project, the entire state would have to vote, as the road is owned by the state.
Gerald Dickson, chair of the Legislative Affairs and Petitions Committee with Citizens Against Unfair Gouging Highway Tolls (C.A.U.G.H.T.), said it was in the DOT's power to call off this project, and asked Ellis to do just that.
"Get this millstone from around our necks: Terminate this project," Dickson said.
Ellis replied that the DOT is examining the possibilities in light of shrinking federal and state funding.
"We've had to get creative and find and examine every possibility to find the resources to fund transportation improvements," Ellis said. "Some might be dead wrong, and this might be one of them."
Public comments on the draft administrative rules will be accepted until Nov. 10, and should be published Dec. 6.
Public hearings regarding the proposed rules are tentatively set for early January.