Tacoma News Tribune
April 17, 2007
State Treasurer Mike Murphy is an unlikely source for leadership on transportation issues, but he delivered some last week with a dose of financial reality for Seattle-area commuters. Murphy warned that building a new Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington will likely require tolling not just that bridge but also the Interstate 90 route across the lake.
South Sound commuters who are still complaining about the state’s decision to finance a second span across the Tacoma Narrows with tolls should take note. Some don’t believe that politicians would ever ask the same of King County’s cross-lake commuters.
It’s not that Murphy is anxious to stick it to Seattle and East Side drivers. It’s just that as the person charged with making sure the state pays it debts, he doesn’t see another way to raise enough money to build the new Highway 520 bridge.
The price tag for replacing the bridge — which itself was built with tolls — stands at $4.4 billion. So far, only $1.7 billion in funding has been identified — the majority of which is part of a regional transportation package voters will consider this fall. Throw in a toll on the new 520 bridge, and the project still pencils a third short of the money needed to repay bonds, according to a recent report for the state Department of Transportation.
But sound financing is not the only reason to toll both bridges. Transportation planners also can make a case based on intelligent traffic management.
Without tolls on both bridges, some drivers will change their driving patterns; Murphy said 520 tolls could divert as much as 50 percent of the traffic. The result: Less toll revenue for the 520 bridge construction and more traffic jams on I-90.
Murphy’s idea is finding some traction in Seattle. The Seattle Times, in an editorial headlined, “The hard truth about tolling Lake Washington,” said last week that Murphy’s suggestion “is not welcome news, but people need to know it.” As the editorial pointed out, all drivers who cross the lake would benefit from a safer and larger 520 bridge.
Convincing state lawmakers still could take some doing. Legislative transportation leaders are cool to the idea of tolling I-90, and some are taking aim at the Regional Transportation Investment District’s plan, suggesting that it should funnel more money toward megaprojects like 520 rather than trying to spread dollars around.
But underlying even that debate is the premise that Highway 520 bridge cannot get built without some tolls. Narrows bridge commuters dreading the advent of tolls this summer can take some comfort that Lake Washington motorists’ day is coming — and that they too might not be able to avoid the toll collector.