Tolls Ahead: The Logic and the Beauty of Pay-By-Ride

You’ve heard the stories. Go to the East and South, to Houston or the Pennsylvania Toll Road or New Jersey, and the tolls add up like popcorn under the movie seats – a nuisance to a nice ride.

Last week, a study conducted for the state Department of Transportation showed tolls would not be the money machine planners had hoped. Even with $1-per-ride tolls on a new Alaskan Way Viaduct or tunnel, the expected revenues were far less than the billions needed to pay for the construction job. The reason is, drivers would have another way around, mostly Interstate 5.

That would also be true for the Highway 520 floating bridge because Interstate 90 is an option, and no tolls are allowed on a federal superhighway going all the way to Boston.

Initially, the tolling numbers seem paltry. On the viaduct, tolls on a $3-billion job or a tunnel or replacement would generate roughly $6 million to $10 million a year, according to the consultants to the state DOT. But that’s every year, and it would certainly pay for something.

Lower revenue projections don’t argue against tolls. They only admit tolls are a contributor to costs, not the solution.

Critics of these editorial pages know we are pro-road – within limits. This region’s roads are broken or near broke, thanks to decades of inaction. Inattention to “concurrency,” the idea that roads and bridges should keep pace with growth, has been a genuine failure of the region’s compact with the Growth Management Act. The result has been higher densities, more congestion, and not enough for roads, bridges, viaducts, you name it.

But being pro-road doesn’t imply that traffic management isn’t an important idea. Tolls offer that. Not on every lane, certainly not on lanes now available on the freeways (an odd and dated term) and the arterials. But new lanes on I-405 or a lane on a six-lane bridge across Lake Washington can be tolled with technology found easy and practical elsewhere.

We must have figured out by now there are no free rides.

No more heavily subsidized ferry rides, no blowing out to Chelan at 80 mph on dollar-a-gallon gasoline, no relief to the choke points at I-90 and I-405, I-5 downtown, Mercer at Westlake. If we want mobility – and not all of us do – and if we want highways that match the needs of the region, tolls are the logical extension of the American driving experience.

They are debatable. The consultant’s report on tolls acknowledged that placing tolls on roads only puts heavier demands on non-toll roads. If the tolls creep higher and higher, use goes down.

But I can’t accept the notion that toll lanes are rich lanes, or Lexus lanes. They are part of the cost of movement. Higher fares also drive down use of mass transit, buses and rail, they drive down the use of ferries and put more strain on alternative routes.

Here’s where serious thought about toll lanes is going. In about three weeks, a white paper will come out of Seattle’s Cascadia Project of the Discovery Institute urging that every new general-purpose lane built have a toll component. That doesn’t mean booths and quarter-takers, it means some level of electronic billing along the lines of those now used on Highway 407 around Toronto.

Bruce Agnew, Cascadia Project director, said what’s becoming obvious, even with lower estimates of toll receipts. “We can’t build public projects with tax money alone, there’s not enough of it. We have to do things like HOT lanes – high occupancy tolls, which allow buses and carpools and vans first, then tolls for single-occupancy vehicles.

“Look at British Columbia,” Agnew said. “The province is skunk broke, they are laying off scads of public employees but at the same time are unveiling six major projects, tolls on highways such as Sea to Ski. There are other solutions, and they are not built solely on what we have done before this.”

Of course, he’s right. This is a place badly in need of new ideas.