Collaboration in Civic Spheres

EPA to WA: Get Smarter on Puget Sound Transpo Policy

by Matt Rosenberg November 17th, 2013

For its Environmental Impact Statement on proposed all-lanes electronic tolling of part of I-90, Washington should consider not just a single alternative but a package of them carefully picked from the current menu which includes a regional vehicle mileage tax (VMT), more transit funding, and widening I-90; as well as a broader regional tolling plan, heavier tolling on 520 than now, and a state gas tax hike. So says the Environmental Review Manager of the U.S. EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10 office in a recent letter to the state. Meanwhile, the City of Mercer Island, at the center of growing opposition to I-90 tolls, is voicing support for a gas tax hike alternative favored by the State Senate Majority, while also signaling openness to a compromise involving HOT lanes, or partial tolling on the highway, free to multi-occupant vehicles and available to solo drivers for a toll. Like the EPA, the city is accenting the need to consider several alternatives implemented together.

The monied bedroom community surrounded by water and reached only via I-90 from both the east and west, is also emphasizing the possible feasibility of the VMT alternative, and suggesting review by the Washington State Department of Transportation in the I-90 EIS of a carbon tax, as well, incorporating vehicle emissions as in neighboring British Columbia. WSDOT sees I-90 tolls as a way to fill a $1.4 funding gap in the new, parallel SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington and reduce the “diversion” of 15,000 cars per day from the now-tolled SR 520 bridge to I-90. “Scoping,” or suggesting alternatives for review and other conditions for the EIS, formally starts in early 2014 and runs through the year.

Regional EPA Accents “Combo Plate” Alternative to I-90 Tolling
But no one alternative among those already planned for review is a silver bullet, says the Region 10 EPA. The EPA letter to the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration is disclosed on pp. 18-21 of a Mercer Island City Council I-90 update packet presented to that body at its Nov.18 meeting. EPA Region 10 Environmental Review Manager Christine Reichgott urges that in addition to assessing the environmental impacts of WSDOT’s envisioned I-90 tolling plan, the EIS should consider currently identified alternatives not in isolation, versus tolling I-90, but as ingredients for a possible combined alternatives approach that could trump tolling the highway. Current menu options include:


  • a state gas tax hike to pay for the balance of the 520 project;
  • a vehicle miles travelled (VMT) tax. That’s part of a broader debate on long-term transportation funding for the region and state. It’s also something that would outperform the gas tax on a net present value basis from 2015 to 2040 by anywhere from $30 million to just under $4 billion, according to a preliminary business case evaluation (p. 9) issued last month by a state VMT advisory committee. The committee meets again Nov. 18 at Sea-Tac Airport to discuss next steps in its own study process, which would require additional funding from the legislature;
  • tolls on other, as yet un-tolled bridges or highway corridors in the region. This is an approach urged by members of the Bellevue City Council, and members of the state’s SR 99 deep-bored tunnel advisory committee, particularly for I-5. WSDOT has acknowledged tolls will be needed on I-5 through Seattle, which has a backlog of maintenance work estimated at about $2 billion. However, WSDOT studies, such as one on extension of SR 167 to I-5 near the Port of Tacoma, have shown that actual revenues from tolling can be fairly modest compared to major project price tags, suggesting that a more robust regional funding strategy may be needed;
  • “adjusted” tolls on SR 520 – meaning, extended beyond the bridge itself and/or at a higher rate on the bridge;
  • formation in the region of special local taxing body known as a Transportation Benefit District – permitted already under state law but requiring a public vote for any more than modest revenue-raising;
  • more transit service – which would also require state legislative or regional voter approval of funding.

  • Additional current EIS alternatives include widening I-90 and more transit funding. Final action on any EIS-related policy package will require legislative and perhaps voter approval, but the formal EIS decision in 2015 will carry great weight with the final “deciders” in Olympia. In her letter to WSDOT Reichgott states focusing on EIS alternatives in isolation from each other isn’t sufficient. “Our concern with this range of alternatives is that, individually, they may not address the stated purpose and need. However, if several strategies were combined to offer a range of strategic packaged alternatives, they could potentially form new alternatives that respond more directly to the purpose and need….Consider forming strategic packaged alternatives that would meet the project purpose and need.”

    EPA Concerns About More Tolling “Diversion”
    EPA’s Reichgott also emphasizes that tolling on I-90 may significantly increase “diversion” from that corridor, with more drivers going around Lake Washington at its northern and southern ends to avoid 520 and 90 tolls, and bringing extra traffic and vehicle emissions to those densely pouplated areas.

    Mercer Island’s Ace in the Hole
    The EPA letter is another arrow in the quiver for the City of Mercer Island – which is strongly opposed to WSDOT’s current I-90 tolling proposal. In addition to energetically lobbying WSDOT, the city is pressing its case with the state’s Congressional delegation, the Federal Highway Administration, and state lawmakers. And the city has a real ace in the hole: State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) chairs the House Transportation Committee, which helps shape appropriations for major WSDOT projects statewide. She will be a key player in the legislature’s decision in 2015 on whether to approve I-90 tolling after the EIS is fully done.

    How About That Carbon Tax?
    Mercer Island in its own recent letter to WSDOT – disclosed on pp. 3-17 of the same I-90 update packet for the Nov. 18 city council meeting – also suggests the viability of a VMT. The city’s heavily-footnoted missive, authored by attorney William Chapman of the K & L Gates law firm’s Seattle office, argues the first alternative to be probed should be a three-cent-per-gallon hike in the state’s fuel tax, which would be enough to fill the 520 funding gap. However Chapman also notes:


  • “VMT is a practicable and viable alternative” that can “‘avoid the problem of diverted traffic…associated with more limited applications of tolling’…Other benefits” of a VMT include “the ability to index the VMT to carbon output” and to better share “burdens fairly between communities” while “minimizing congestion on the network of highways;”
  • As well, writes Chapman, carbon taxes can raise “significant amounts of revenue and significantly reduce emissions,” as in BC, “all without imposing a disproportionate burden on any one community.”

  • City Floats a Compromise I-90 Tolling Scenario
    The Mercer Island letter to WSDOT notably also suggests close examination in the EIS of a tolled alternative for I-90 known as “HOT lanes,” which refers to High Occupancy and Toll lanes like those used on a stretch of SR 167 in the Kent Valley, and planned for I-405 as well. HOT lanes are usually free to vehicles with two or more passengers (or three or more depending on rules) and are also available to solo drivers for a sliding scale electronic toll based on time of day or real-time congestion. They are typically not used on all lanes of a highway, but are parallel to free lanes. HOT lanes on I-90 could be combined with a gas tax hike smaller than the three-cents-per-gallon that would solve the SR 520 funding problem, Chapman states.

    “Lexus Lanes” Or Not?
    Critics have called them “Lexus Lanes” for the rich only. Supporters say HOT lanes provide more reliable travel times for drivers of all income levels when needed; and relieve pressure on adjoining free lanes, to the benefit of all; while the higher peak hour charges for solo drivers encourage ride-sharing, telecommuting and transit use. The current WSDOT proposal for the I-90 bridge is not for the partial, HOT lanes approach, but instead for all lanes to be tolled.

    Scoping for the I-90 EIS continues through 2014, in stages. In mid-2015, WSDOT will issue its draft EIS for a 30-day public comment period, and later in 2015 is scheduled to issue its final EIS. A Finding of No Significant Impact for the I-90 tolling alternative would set the stage for required approval of the project by the sate legislature and the issuance of a formal Record of Decision.

    RELATED:

  • WA Court Denies Transpo Greens But Inroads Unfolding,” Public Data Ferret
  • WSDOT’s I-90 Tolling Site

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