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The Viaduct Decision’s Next Step: Tolling

Original Article

In an interview with Ross Reynolds on KUOW-FM – MP3 audio file here – Washington Governor Chris Gregoire said it was “very likely” that tolling would be applied to the new deep bored tunnel planned to replace the seismically vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in Seattle. (A state rendering of the bored tunnel’s cross-section is below, right.) At the 3:02 mark, she states:

It’s very likely that we will toll. Any mega-project that we do today is having to be tolled because historically we had so much federal money coming in (but) we no longer do…

Reflecting a viewpoint similar to Gregoire’s, State Senator Ed Murray told the Seattle Times about the tunnel funding mix: “There has to be tolling. In any megaproject there is going to have to be tolling…There is no other way to move forward on megaprojects if we don’t.”

That’s an on-target assessment, consistent with the strong support the Governor, some legislators, and the state transportation department have already shown for tolling current and planned projects. Electronic time-variable tolling is on the legislature’s agenda this session to help fund replacement of the wind- and earthquake-prone State Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, and that plan could include tolling of the parallel Interstate 90 bridge. A federal Urban Partnerships grant of $138 million for the 520 bridge replacement, with millions more attached for regional transit projects, is conditioned on legislative approval by September 30, 2009 of tolling the bridge.

A recent poll by the state’s 520 Tolling Implementation Committee showed significant public support for time-variable electronic tolling on the SR 520 and I-90 bridges, and for starting tolling on the old 520 bridge in 2010. For polling results, see p. 17 of the committee’s Draft Tolling Report to the state legislature, released earlier this month).

Electronic time-variable tolling is already underway on State Route 167 in south King County, and electronic and booth tolling are in place on the new southbound span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. And the governor has helped build support for electronic tolling on the planned new I-5 span across the Columbia River connecting Washington and Oregon, as a funding and peak-hour traffic management tool.

So, electronic tolling, and time-variable tolls, are on their way to gaining a foothold in Central Puget Sound, and in a major bi-state bridge project. And that approach for the deep bored tunnel on SR 99 (the Viaduct route) makes sense – in terms of funding and public policy. The expected cost of the single bored, 54-feet diameter, two level tunnel to go deep under Seattle’s First Avenue for two miles is currently pegged at $1.9 billion by the Washington Department of Transportation, though it could be less in the end. (The 14th slide in this WSDOT presentation of 12/16/08 indicated the cost for the single-bored SR 99 inland bypass tunnel could be as low as $961 million. More clarity on costs for all project elements will develop as engineering progresses.)

But for now, additional transit and infrastructure projects for the key north-south travel corridor bring the total package’s estimated cost to $4.25 billion. The City of Seattle, King County and Port of Seattle are slated to supply the balance of funding beyond the state’s $2.8 billion, pledged by the legislature for Viaduct replacement work. (More in this WSDOT deep bored tunnel project overview – the p. 3 chart details who intends to pay for what).

However, $400 million of that $2.8 billion was shifted to the SR 520 bridge replacement project by lawmakers impatient with this second-time-around Viaduct replacement decision process. It could be yanked back to SR 99, but the crucial, costly SR 520 endeavor needs all the help it can get. Unless the money turns up in a turnip patch somewhere, or is re-allocated to SR 99, the state’s $400 million funding gap for Viaduct replacement on SR 99 needs to be filled. It’s a real concern to some State Senate Democrats, as the Tacoma News Tribune’s Joe Turner reports. Electronic time-variable tolling of the deep bored tunnel, with transit and ride-share vehicles traveling free, will help close the gap. On his blog, State Rep. Ross Hunter, an Eastside Democrat, says he likes the tunnel as long as it’s tolled, and really gets built.

Under any circumstances, tolling the tunnel is a smart move policy-wise. In a concession to cost constraints and environmental concerns, it will only be four lanes, not the current six of the Viaduct. But with added transit service (including an up to 25 percent countywide increase in King County Metro bus hours funded by a 1 percent car license tab tax), a four-lane tunnel can prove workable, especially if there are toll pricing incentives to discourage overcrowding during morning and evening rush hours. Usually, it is only at those times and before and after professional sporting events at the First Avenue stadiums that the Viaduct comes anywhere near capacity.

<img “width=”366″ height=”200″ src=”http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=3841″ align=”left” hspace=”5″ vspace=”5″>But would tolling the SR 99 tunnel simply divert traffic to parallel Interstate 5?

Not likely. Even with improvements to I-5, SR 99 will retain a strong logistical advantage for many drivers.

Roughly two-thirds of the Viaduct’s 110,000 daily vehicle trips are thru traffic bypassing the downtown core, and SR 99’s location west of I-5 makes it a natural choice for many drivers in Seattle and points north and south of the city.

Whereas I-5 is now synonymous with congestion through Seattle, SR 99 enjoys a reputation as a breezy alternative. A reduction from three to two lanes in each direction should not alter that, especially if the tunnel is tolled to discourage peak-hour congestion.

Still, there are some access issues causing discomfort, particularly for local truck drivers going to and and from the Ballard, Magnolia and Interbay neighborhoods of Seattle. Under the current tunnel plan they would lose on- and off-ramp access to and from more convenient, west-side routes where northbound SR 99 bends east from Elliott Bay to an inland alignment. Additional entrance and exit ramps to the tunnel to address these concerns are seen at present as too costly, so a surface street route may be necessary for these vehicles (that could change, as talks regarding a tunnel spur to the northwest are ongoing). And unlike the Viaduct, this tunnel will not permit trucks bearing hazardous materials. More here from the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Everybody, including advocates of a six-lane tunnel, gets to give some blood. There’s no way a project of this nature can ever win acclaim from all quarters as a perfect solution, but the tunnel’s overall benefits to the region will be huge. It will maintain a crucial downtown bypass alternative to jammed I-5, while encouraging options other than solo driving. It will minimize disruptions to waterfront businesses, versus a new elevated structure at water’s edge, which would necessitate awkward detours during years of construction while the old Viaduct is torn down. It will open up the downtown waterfront for more recreation, development and commerce, adding huge increments in property values, which in turn will help finance the project and fatten tax coffers for years to come. And it will last twice as long as any new elevated roadway.

Electronic time-variable tolling makes sense not only to manage traffic flows and help fund the new tunnel, but also on some lanes of I-5 in Seattle from downtown to Northgate. This would contribute to $2 billion in badly-needed I-5 work; and help achieve a regional policy overlay on highways and major state routes of tolled lanes with free passage at all times for transit and ride-share vehicles; and for solo drivers, peak-hour premiums paired with off-peak discounts. This in turn would help drive further adoption of transit, ride-sharing and tele-work. But note: That transit piece depends on continued maintenance and expansion of transit services, such as that enabled by the Metro funding in the larger tunnel package.

In embracing the deep bore tunnel Governor Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani (all pictured above, left) – were spurred by an informed and savvy Viaduct Stakeholders Advisory Committee – and have come together in what is for the Puget Sound region a near-historical political accord on a major infrastructure project.

The tunnel choice is a 100-year masterstroke, but let’s not develop tunnel vision. A more pressing challenge, which aligns with the green transportation agenda, is breaking away from the piecemeal approach to road and bridge projects, in favor of a consistent regional road pricing strategy for private single-occupancy vehicles. One day that could mean a vehicle-miles-travelled tax on all roads and streets, with off-peak discounts. For now the region and the legislature should adopt a variable-rate tolling policy for some lanes on all highways and major state routes in Central Puget Sound, to alter for the greater good the ways and times we travel here.

Because mere exhortations to solo drivers to “do the right thing,” aren’t enough.

Matt Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow at the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute.