by Matt Rosenberg December 12th, 2012
Just this Monday night, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s tolling division director Craig Stone briefed the City Council of Bellevue on an environmental assessment and community outreach effort that’s to come alive in early 2013, paving the way for I-90 Seattle region tolling by 2016. State lawmakers see that as a cash cow for the underfunded SR 520 replacement bridge. But along the way Stone got a polite earful from some council members about the need to spread the tolling burden more broadly across the region, including to Interstate 5 in and around Seattle. Others including stakeholders involved in looming tolling on the new SR 99 tunnel in Seattle, also favor tolling on adjacent I-5 to keep traffic flows in balance. Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, a state committee is taking an early look at a long-term plan to charge for all miles traveled on all streets and roads.
For now, lawmakers are hoping WSDOT and its consultants can make plausible to skeptics their rationale for milking I-90 to help 520. Some officials and commuters would prefer to see any I-90 toll revenue used right where it’s generated, rather than for SR 520. The bridges on both highways across sprawling Lake Washington define what transportation planners like to call the “Cross-Lake Corridor,” which operates as a system of sorts. The two bridges carry a combined average daily vehicle load of 226,000, according to a 2011 state study. Peak hour congestion is a problem on and around the paired structures; and to boot, replacement of the dangerously weak old bridge on 520 costs $1.4 billion more than the $2.7 billion the state has mustered. Since variable-rate electronic tolling began on SR 520 in late December of 2011, some traffic has diverted to I-90, worsening rush hour traffic there. So to even things out, and to help fill the 520 bridge replacement funding gap, the state has been planning electronic tolling for I-90 as well.
In his Bellevue presentation Monday December 10 (video above) WSDOT’s Stone said travel times are four minutes shorter during peak hours on 520 now and there’s been an 18 percent increase in van pool trips, which are not charged a toll. But traffic is up 11 percent on I-90, and has increased on I-405 and I-5 too, as drivers take these north-south highways down to I-90 which they use as a toll-free alternative to the tolled 520 bridge, Stone added.
A city staff memo prepared for Monday night’s council study session says an “I-90 Executive Advisory Group” will be formed by WSDOT early in the new year to guide an environmental analysis by the agency – including public input – of the impact of tolling I-90 for some portion to be defined between I-5 in Seattle and I-405 in Bellevue. Stone confirmed that and added preliminary public meetings on scoping the study will be held January 29, 30, and 31, with details to be released in coming weeks by WSDOT.
The city memo says WSDOT’s goals in the I-90 review process include educating the public “about the need for tolling I-90 and the benefits to tolling both bridges,” and building ” a regional consensus on parameters of the Cross-Lake Corridor and I-90 Tolling.” The I-90 Executive Advisory Group will include representatives of Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Issaquah, Sammamish, King County, Sound Transit and the 5th, 37th and 41st state legislative districts. According to the WSDOT fact sheet attached to the Bellevue city staff memo, the state legislature must authorize I-90 tolling by the end of the 2014 legislative session and “tolling could begin, depending on the alternative chosen, by 2015 or 2016.”
The Washington State Transportation Commission would set actual toll rates. Current weekday tolls on 520 range from $1.64 to $3.59 with a “Good To Go” pass, depending on time of day, and from $3.18 to $5.13 for pay-by-mail drivers. Transit and van pools are exempt. Construction of the new 520 bridge is to be completed in 2014.
Stone told the Bellevue Council there will be a number of specifics for the I-90 tolling advisory group to work through. These include where on I-90 to place the overhead electronic toll-levying devices called gantries, which communicate with windshield-mounted transponders of drivers, automatically charging their pre-paid “Good To Go” accounts, or capturing their license plate numbers for billing by mail. Where they’re put could affect whether or not residents of Mercer Island, in the middle of the lake along I-90, will be tolled for going into Seattle, or just for going east on I-90 toward Bellevue, or both.
Bellevue Transportation Planner Kim Becklund attended the presentation and said it seemed clear that the tolling corridor on I-90, whatever its length, will involve an “all-lanes tolled” approach versus the express toll lanes planned in a separate project for I-405.
Stone noted that another decision will be whether to include an optional express toll lane in each direction extending further east to Issaquah from the eastern terminus of the I-90 tolling zone. Other improvements to I-90 funded by I-90 tolls could involve transit and/or toll lane connectors to I-405. About $1 billion could be raised in I-90 tolls, but how much of that would be used for I-90 rather than completing the 520 bridge is something legislators will have to decide, Stone said, with additional state borrowing to complete the 520 bridge a possibility.
Bellevue City Council Member Claudia Balducci stressed during the session with Stone that legislators need to spell out a system-wide highway tolling strategy instead of the current piecemeal approach, which she said appears to emphasize tolling more on the east side of the lake and less on the Seattle side. She said to Stone, “I just personally have never agreed with the idea of tolling I-90 simply to raise money for 520. Why not toll a bunch of roads to pay for 520,” such as I-5, I-405 and SR 522, she asked. “If tolling is the future, (if) it’s how we’re going to start paying for the significant road investments that are needed…and maintenance and operations…then we have to start urging the legislature to…move to a new funding structure in a wholesale way instead of…piecemeal,” she said. Council Member John Stokes also voiced support for tolling I-5 so that the approach is not so “Eastside-centric.”
Stone said the legislature has taken an incremental approach but suggested that the pieces are positioned to come together. The state two years ago completed a study that could set the stage for express lane tolling on I-5 in some portions of the Tumwater to Marysville urban corridor. Meanwhile tolling on the new SR 99 tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s downtown waterfront has prompted vocal support from some stakeholders for tolling I-5 to prevent motorists from flocking there to avoid the tunnel’s tolls, Stone added.
In addition to planned High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) express lanes on I-405, such lanes also are in operation SR 167, which extends south through the Kent Valley toward Tacoma from I-405’s southern terminus in Tukwila, and electronic and booth tolling are in place on the southbound lanes of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The common denominators in all cases are reducing peak hour congestion and generating additional funding for transportation improvements that can’t be covered by the dwindling revenues from the by-the-gallon gas tax.
The daunting funding gap for the SR 520 bridge is at least somewhat less than before, according to the state. As the Seattle Times reported, in late October the state revised downward that shortfall from $2.1 billion to $1.4 billion, citing lower than expected construction costs so far and a new federal loan of $300 million. The projected final cost is now $4.13 billion. But some observers are far from certain costs for the contentious west side portion of the entire 520 bridge project won’t still balloon because of Seattle neighborhood concerns about the size of the planned footprint, and possible legal challenges.
As Washington moves toward an integrated system of regional highway tolling in Central Puget Sound, it is also beginning to explore an even more sweeping, long-term approach to paying for the costs of vehicle travel statewide. The concept of a vehicle tax by the mile is getting a preliminary review by a state-appointed committee, and could move into a second, more detailed phase of study if the legislature approves related funds in the 2013 session.