News that federal DOT officials have accepted the offer by Puget Sound transportation leaders to toll a new State Route 520 bridge by September of 2009 in exchange for $139 million in new bridge-rebuild cash from the feds will accelerate a much needed debate about the eventual need for system-wide tolling here. This dialog is coming despite two state gas tax hikes in recent years, and a hard-to-get-your-mind-around $17.8 billion regional Roads and Transit vote on November 6. The new federal money for rebuilding the unsafe and congested SR 520 bridge – money explicitly conditioned upon supplemental tolling of the bridge – comes in response to a successful Urban Partnership grant application to USDOT from a team including WSDOT, the Puget Sound Regional Council and King County.
Several developments would add impetus to the dialog on regional highway tolling for Puget Sound.
First, the state legislature has to authorize tolls on SR 520 as part of the deal. Once that happens – and given the inevitable backlash from some corners in the contentious local transportation scene – the debate will start in earnest.
Another key player is Governor Chris Gregoire, who did not assert a pro-tolling position in the unsettled examination earlier this year of how to pay for replacing the aged and unstable Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in Seattle. One major concern for the Governor was “leaking” revenue as motorists used other untolled routes versus a tolled Viaduct. Given that a valuable federal grant for the crucial SR 520 bridge rebuild is conditioned on tolling that bridge, the stakes grow larger. The Governor needs to make regional highway tolling a big deal in next year’s proposals to the Legislature.
In addition, local elected leaders who want to add a third major tax increase for transportation in four years to Puget Sound households (this fall’s Roads and Transit ballot measure), need to be clear and honest about the inevitability of tolls and taxes. Study after study has shown that we will need twice as much funding as we have for safety, capacity and technology improvements to meet the twin challenges of more people and freight coming to our region.
Environmental and other prerogatives add to the impetus for expanded transportation funding options, including regional tolling. The transportation system is moving inexorably to biofuels and electricity due to national security and global warming concerns. As a result, the gas tax will soon fade away as the chief funding source.
So let’s use the relatively positive experience from tolling on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge– and the current debate over SR 520 – to launch a much larger community discussion about system-wide tolling in Puget Sound.
Highways in congested metropolitan regions need to be thought of as a scarce resource, and priced accordingly for single-occupant vehicles.
“Highway Tolls Are Inevitable In Metro Puget Sound,” Dean Paton, Crosscut;
“Destination 2030 – Taking An Alternative Route,” (regional tolling study prepared for King County Executive Ron Sims by Washington Transportation Research Center – University of Washington, & Booz Allen Hamilton);
“Public-Private Partnerships For Toll Highways,” Robert Poole, Reason Foundation (Congressional testimony);
WSDOT news release on $138.7 million federal grant for 520 bridge rebuild;
WSDOT’s “State Route 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Project” Web page.