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All Roads West 

by NICHOLAS DESHAIS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f Tim Eyman gets his way this November, the non-existent car pool lanes on Inland Northwest highways will be opened to all vehicles and the already-synchronized signals on Spokane's busiest roads will be re-synchronized. And revenue from Spokane's new Photo-Red program would be diverted to Seattle.





On the other side of the state the story's a little different. If Eyman's Initiative 985 passes, the state's most populated highways and cities will see expansive changes to how traffic moves and transportation projects will witness an influx of funding aimed at those changes.





And yet Washington's favorite initiative pusher wonders why some people call I-985 -- the Reduce Traffic Congestion Initiative -- a westside initiative.





"They're liars," Eyman says of such people. A recent poll shows eastside support for the measure at a tepid 43 percent despite facing no organized opposition here. Eyman calls the author of the poll, Stuart Elway, "a kook. He's the most quoted, inaccurate pollster our state has."





As support out here plummets, the likelihood the initiative will succeed drops as well. In July, Elway showed statewide support at 58 percent. It's at 51 percent now. And as time wears on, the crowd against the initiative grows larger... liars, kooks and all.





According to Eyman, the No. 1 annoyance facing Lilac City commuters is the time spent stuck at a red light, not idling on a clogged freeway. Eyman considers waiting at a red light traffic congestion.





Mark Serbousek, director of the City of Spokane's street department, says it's more complicated than that. "For the most part, our signals are pretty close. ... They're in pretty good shape," Serbousek says. "The complexity that we're dealing with is far above what everybody understands [about] what we have to do."





Most of Spokane's busiest thoroughfares are hooked into the ACTRA system, adaptive software that controls signals along corridors of traffic, factoring in different variables such as the duration of rush hour, the distance between lights and the amount of cars in a "platoon" behind each red light.





"This is a mechanical system... it has bleeps," admits Serbousek, before adding that it is otherwise reliable.





Al Gilson, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, won't comment on the initiative itself, but he does have something to say about which traffic signals in the area have synchronization systems. "They all do," he says. "We work on traffic synchronization all the time."





He says a good example of an evolving traffic corridor is Sullivan Road near the Spokane Valley Mall. After the mall and Wal-Mart were built, traffic patterns along the route shifted and engineers attempted to synchronize the lights accordingly. "We had to wait a while to see what traffic was going to do."





All right. Forget all that. Even if it doesn't affect local traffic, Eyman says the initiative won't cost a thing. It is not a tax hike. It simply reallocates state funds.





"For the people on the east end of the state, the big (reason to vote) for this initiative: it's better than (state legislators) raising taxes. That's what they always do," Eyman argues. "No more taxes. How do I communicate that? Nine-eight-five is how you communicate that."





Dale Steadman, who served on the state's Transportation Commission until earlier this month, says almost $700 million will be transferred from the state's general fund to the new "Reduce Traffic Congestion Account."





"There's little to no value for not only Spokane but probably the entire state. [The initiative says] let's help Seattle, basically, deal with their congestion problem," says Steadman, who worked for the American Automobile Association in Spokane from 1951 to 1994 and is the former director of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. "These funds are going to come from around the state, not just the Seattle area. ... I'm a transportation guy and I'm always looking for transportation funding, but I'm against taking funds from other, more important areas."





If passed, funding for the initiative will come from three different eastside sources. First, it will slice 15 percent from an existing car sales tax, generating about $120 million annually, according to the state's Office of Financial Management. The initiative will also tap into a state-managed public art program. The Art in Public Spaces program, also known as the one-half of 1 percent program, mandates the acquisition and placement of art in state-funded construction projects. Finally, the initiative will collect all profits from a red-light photo enforcement program Spokane plans to launch Oct. 1.





Spokane Police Officer Teresa Fuller, director of the photo enforcement program, says the program could bring in a little more than $1 million a year, before accounting for various costs and fees. The result: hundreds of thousands of dollars for the department.





The program will begin with four cameras -- northbound at Mission and Hamilton; southbound at Sprague and Browne; north and southbound at Francis and Division -- performing a dry run through October before officially beginning on Nov. 1. But Fuller is adamant that the program is not a moneymaking endeavor.





"It's a traffic safety program," she says. "This is not a monetary thing."





Nonetheless, if I-985 passes, the money will flow west, not into city coffers.





Eyman's main adversary for this campaign is Doug MacDonald, who led the state DOT from 2001 to 2007. When they're not debating the issue before various chambers of commerce, Eyman delivers some strong judgment: "Doug MacDonald is just crying like a baby, saying, 'Well, we don't like the way we're adopting these recommendations.'"





Aside from what he views as the initiative's statewide imperfections, MacDonald argues that the transportation problems facing Spokane, such as the cash-strapped North Spokane Corridor, will be ignored if Eyman succeeds.





"What this initiative says to Spokane is that the heavy-duty congestion problems are in Puget Sound and, if you don't mind, we're going to spend your money there," he says. "It's pretty clear that this money is not coming back to Spokane. ... You can guarantee it's not coming back."





nickd@inlander.com
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