Bellevue Developer Targets Tolls On Washington Ballot

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Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman is backing I-1125 on the Washington ballot hide caption

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Former Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald is campaigning against I-1125 hide caption

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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," he says.

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."

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. 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 40 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, " he says. "But to dream and hope that transit is the future and that people will ride bus and they'll do this and that."

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 $1 million of his own money into the 'Yes on I-1125' campaign.

"I've never done anything like it in my life," he says.

And he says he may pony up even more to combat the "No" campaign's TV ads. We're now standing in his corporate offices looking at a model of downtown Bellevue. 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 now using 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."

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

"Variable tolls means that driver there is going to say 'you know if the toll is $2.50 now maybe I'll come over at 11 when the toll is only 45-cents,'" says Doug MacDonald, a former Washington Secretary of Transportation.

He and I are standing on an overpass near the 520 bridge over Lake Washington – one of the most congested corridors in the state. 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 says.

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," MacDonald says. "We are stuck in traffic and the kinds of improvements that could be offered to these drivers are slower, later and more expensive."

Kemper 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 Kemper Freeman's and one he's currently litigating in court.

On the Web:

I-1125 Voters' Guide: http://wei.secstate.wa.gov/osos/en/PreviousElections/2011/general/Pages/OVG_20111108.aspx?ElectionID=42&sorttype=Measures#ososTop

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