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Bellevue developer backs I-1125, wants to reengineer state roads

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Usually, high dollar political contributors let their money do the talking. They write big checks to campaigns, but otherwise stay behind the scenes. Not so with Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman. He’s become the money and the mouth behind Tim Eyman’s latest initiative – to limit highway tolling.

Take a walk through Bellevue Square with mall developer Kemper Freeman and he can’t help but boast about the success of his stores.

“There’s the number one Microsoft store in the world, there’s the number two Apple store in the country,” Freeman said.

But Freeman says time and again he hears from his customers:

“We love Bellevue Square and we’d come more often if it was easier to get there,” he said.

That’s one of the motivations for his support of Initiative 1125 on the fall ballot – the latest measure from conservative anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.

Tolling limits

The measure would place strict limits on freeway and bridge tolling to prevent “tolls from becoming taxes,” in the words of Eyman. Freeman though views this measure as something bigger: a referendum on forty years of transportation policy.

“And since 1970, the policy of our public officials has been not to even pretend to keep with up a road system that meets demand, but to dream and hope that transit’s the future and that people will ride bus and they’ll do this and that," Freeman said.

It hasn’t worked, says Freeman, and now it’s time to get back to what he calls “free mobility.” He feels so passionately about this topic that over the years he’s hired transportation engineers and put together his own project list. Now he’s gone a step further. He’s put nearly a million bucks of his own money into the Yes on I-1125 campaign.

“I’ve never done anything like it in my life," he said. And he says he may pony up even more to combat the “No” campaign’s TV ads.

Social engineering?

The problem, as Freeman sees it, is transportation planners have spent the past four decades trying to get people out of their cars instead of focusing on ending gridlock. He points to variable rate tolls where drivers pay more during peak travel times and less during off hours. I-1125 would outlaw them in Washington.

“We’re using now social engineering to try and make a system that was never designed to work somehow seem to work if you can afford to pay extra, extra, extra in order to use it,” Freeman said.

Backers of variable tolling don’t deny it – they are hoping to change driver behavior.

“Variable tolls means that driver there is gonna say ‘you know if the toll’s $2.50 now maybe I’ll come over at 11 when the toll’s only 45-cents,’ ” MacDonald said.

Pushing for fixes

Doug MacDonald is a former Washington Secretary of Transportation. MacDonald says if I-1125 passes it will slam the brakes on efforts to expand the 520 and other projects – like the Columbia River Crossing, the proposed bridge between Washington and Oregon.

“It’s a wrecking program for getting the improvements we need,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald points specifically to the provision of the initiative that requires the legislature – not a commission – to set tolls. He warns Wall Street won’t buy toll-backed bonds for Washington projects if the tolls depend on a legislative vote.

“Take that out and you’ve got to bring in more gas tax, projects like this get delayed, they can’t get done, other projects around the state that are like this also can’t get done. We are stuck in traffic and the kinds of improvements that could be offered to these drivers are slower, later and more expensive,” MacDonald said.

Division among businessmen

Freeman responds that projects like the 520 are overpriced and won’t solve the congestion problem anyway. But he’s failed to win over his peers in the business community.

So far most business groups have come out against his transportation initiative. That leaves Freeman in a lonely partnership with Tim Eyman. But both of them are betting they’ll have the majority of Washington voters on their side come November.

Another provision of I-1125 would prohibit light rail on the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington. That’s a longstanding cause of Freeman’s and one he’s currently litigating in court.

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Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.