Legislative support grows for road and bridge tolls
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington’s tradition of free highways and bridges apparently is about to change. Tolls are on the way.
The state Legislature is turning to tolls as a way to help finance ultra-expensive “mega-projects,” most notably in the heavily congested central Puget Sound region.
Examples: reconstruction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, Interstate 405 improvements and new bridges across Lake Washington and also the Columbia River at Vancouver.
Two projects already are ushering in the long-resisted notion of tolls: the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge and a “HOT lane” on nine miles of state Route 167 between Auburn and Renton. The “high occupancy toll” would allow a single-occupancy vehicle to use the car pool lanes.
Tolls already have been established for the new Tacoma bridge when it opens, starting at $3 per vehicle, and the Route 167 pilot project is expected to win legislative approval this winter. Those tolls would range from 60 cents off-peak to $1.20 during rush hour.
The Senate Transportation Committee and a parade of witnesses praised the general idea of toll roads and bridges during a study session on Tuesday. The new tolls would help pay off bonds for a variety of big-ticket projects or would help manage the flow of traffic through “congestion pricing.”
The Route 167 project also drew support, although newspaper publishers asked for public access to information about the users of the new “hot lane.” Newspapers would want to track whether the program becomes a “Lexus lane” for the rich, while blue-collar motorists languish in the free slower lanes, said spokesman Rowland Thompson.
The project would cost $15 million for startup costs, and the $1.5 million in annual tolls probably would be absorbed by increased operating costs, lawmakers were told.
Smarter use of the lanes would relieve some of the congestion that hurts commuters and commerce in the corridor, said Auburn Mayor Peter Lewis and Kent Mayor Jim White.
“There is tremendous local support,” Lewis said.
Senators and witnesses said tolls are becoming a fact of life.
“People are now asking for this as part of the answer to building new infrastructure in this state,” said Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.
The gasoline tax, now 28 cents a gallon, is no longer adequate to pay for the heavy backlog of expensive projects, she said. That means tolls will be part of the answer for new bridges and big-ticket items like the new Columbia River bridge in Vancouver, the viaduct and projects around the state, she said.
“There’s no question about it,” she said after the hearing.
The ranking Republican on the panel, Dan Swecker of Rochester, agreed, “It’s definitely part of the solution.”
Washington has a long tradition of freeways and free roads, unlike eastern states that have many turnpikes and toll facilities. One exception: 13 bridges, including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the first Lake Washington bridge, have been financed by tolls. Those bridges have been paid off and the tolls removed.
But a few years back, there was heavy opposition to using tolls to finance the new Tacoma Narrows companion bridge, as well as five now-defunct projects that would have used tolls to repay private investors.
“There was a time when you couldn’t even say the word ‘toll.’ You had to spell it,” said Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard.
Oke was almost defeated by critics of his stance on the narrows bridge and tolls. He told White and Lewis to expect some blowback if the tolls are imposed.
“They’ll want to hang you,” Oke said.
Haugen also predicted a bumpy time as people get used to the inevitability of tolls. She said ferry riders already know the pinch of paying fares just to get to work.
Both houses are expected to pass legislation to remove roadblocks to the state Department of Transportation establishing tolls for future projects.
The agency told senators that tolls in the greater Seattle area could bring in $253 million to $458 million a year. That assumes tolls on all lanes of Interstate 5 from the I-405 interchange south to the Pierce County line, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a 12-mile stretch of state Route 509, all lanes on I-405 for its entire 30-mile length, 13 miles of Interstate 90 from Seattle to the Eastside suburbs, and state Route 167.
The DOT also provided estimates for much narrower application of tolls for individual projects.
No cost breakouts were provided for the individual motorist.
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