The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Governor Gregoire's Plan for Tolls on 520

Gregoire Unveils Tolling Proposal For SR 520 Bridge, I-90
Matt Rosenberg

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire yesterday announced a proposal - which the legislature would have to approve - for tolling the S.R. 520 bridge starting next year, and also indicated preliminary support for tolling the parallel I-90 bridge across Lake Washington. All this could raise about $2 billion for replacement of the deteriorating SR 520 span, which could fail in an earthquake or severe windstorm. The Seattle Times reports. The total cost was estimated at $4.4 billion, though a new state estimate suggets the tab could be cut to $4 billion with a questionable single-pontoon design which limits future transit expansion. Some $2 billion in bridge rebuild funding is already secured.

The new tolls would vary by time of day, higher during rush hours. This would qualify as congestion pricing, which is gaining steam across the U.S., as we wrote here earlier this week.

Tolling the SR 520 bridge is a required condition of a federal grant which provides $138 million for the bridge rebuild and other projects. There've been some promising developments on tolling and congestion pricing in Puget Sound - which we noted in the above-linked post, namely on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge and a pilot project starting this year on SR 167. But we have a ways to go. While voters have approved two modest gas tax hikes in recent years and some city (Seattle) and county (King) taxes in 2006 for street maintenance and bus service respectively, a large, three-county roads and transit ballot measure (Proposition 1) tanked last November. Some say it was because road projects dragged down otherwise popular light rail, others because the price tag ($18 to $47 billion depending how you did the math) was too high and major priorities such as the 520 bridge and replacement of the crumbling Alaskan Way viaduct weren't allocated anywhere near the needed funds for completion.

There are tens of billions of dollars worth of road and transit projects remaining in Puget Sound; and a bracing 52 percent population increase projected by 2040, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. Prospects are dim for any major gas tax hikes. So tolling and congestion pricing are key, along with expanded transit which will actually make a sizeable dent in traffic.

It's early yet in the political conversation about regional tolling and congestion pricing, but the Governor deserves some credit for broaching the subject with respect to the 520 bridge rebuild. However, the announced 2018 completion date is much too far off; hundreds of lives could be lost if the bridge fails. Is it a worrisome risk requiring strong leadership and timely action? Or not?

A public-private partnership including union or public employee pension funds could be fashioned to generate more money for a better bridge and get it built sooner. If there's ever been a time to think big about delivering better transportation infrastructure while limiting taxpayer costs, it's now. SR 520, the Viaduct replacement, vital road projects in Pierce and Snohomish counties, and regional transit expansion are all cases in point.

And while tolling I-90 would be essential to prevent traffic diversions from 520 motorists seeking to avoid the proposed new tolls there, it is the reversible express lanes of I-90 which should used for this purpose, and then, under a congestion pricing strategy. The toll revenues from I-90 would be needed to help pay for the SR 520 bridge rebuild, and a certain portion could be carved out to help fund additional express bus service on both bridges.

The 60-day short-session in the Washington state legislature beginning next week will be an eventful one on transportation. Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 1/14/08: Gregoire's announcement is earning positive feedback from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board, the Tacoma News Tribune editorial board, and Seattle Times editorial page editor James Vesely.

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