by Matt Rosenberg February 18th, 2013
A new report to the legislature says Washington state is currently $1.43 billion short of what it would take to complete a crucial six-lane, six-mile partially-tolled extension of State Route 167 from Meridian Avenue in Puyallup across Interstate 5 to Port of Tacoma Road and State Route 509. According to the report just issued by the Washington State Department of Transportation, another $1.5 billion is needed for right-of-way purchases, securing permits and building the project, but only $65 million could be raised over 30 years through current plans to electronically toll one lane in each direction. Combined with a long laundry list of other road and transit needs statewide, the findings add to already considerable pressure for lawmakers to approve some sort of transportation funding package in Olympia this session.
Discussions began among cities last fall on a new state transportation funding bill for this this spring which could include a hike in the state gas tax, a local motor vehicle excise tax option, and authority to increase to $40 from the current $20 a separate special fee which local and regional transportation benefit districts can charge motorists as part of their annual license renewal.
Meanwhile for the Puget Sound region, pressure is growing both from prominent cities such as Bellevue and a key state advisory committee for the state to look harder at a “systems” approach to electronic time-variable tolling which minimizes congestion from “diversions,” or drivers taking an un-tolled parallel highway or bridge to avoid one that is tolled.
As well, the state is studying a relatively radical approach, to charge for all miles travelled on all roads through a “vehicle mileage tax.”
The new SR 167 report says stakeholder surveys for WSDOT show strong public support for the highway’s completion, for which planning began 40 years ago. That support drops if tolling is included but bounces up to as high as two-thirds if tolls are used only for building the extension. Scenarios included tolling anywhere from one to all three lanes in each direction on the extended highway, but the most likely to be chosen is one on each side, the study says.
WSDOT notes in the report that “to satisfy potential financial institutions” involved in issuing 30-year debt to help finance the project, conservative fiscal assumptions were needed including a bet lawmakers could easily fail to approve increases in initial toll rates which would likely be set at between 30 cents to $3.55 for travel on the tolled northbound lane of the extension and 50 cents to $2.80 on its southbound counterpart.
To generate more revenue for the project from tolling, WSDOT warns that assumption “should be revisited as soon as possible.” The agency explains public resistance to tolling on the extension could decrease once it opens and people see how convenient it can be to take the less congested tolled lanes. Improved economic conditions could also play into lower resistance to tolling and more revenues than anticipated by current modeling, WSDOT notes.
SR 167 provides a key eastern parallel route to congested I-5, running from I-405 near Renton and Tukwila south through the major warehouse, distribution and manufacturing hub of the Kent Valley until it begins to curve west toward I-5 near the Port of Tacoma. But there it stops short of I-5 by several miles, which has wrought havoc in recent decades for commuters and freight vehicles going to the Port. The mess is further complicated by an overload of traffic on I-5, which as the new report notes, is also badly in need of congestion relief.
According to a task force report released last year by then-Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, the state needs $50 billion in surface transportation funding over the next ten years but may have to lower it sights to $21 billion. In 2010 the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Transportation 2040″ report found the greater Everett-Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma-Bremerton region would need $64 billion more in surface transpiration funding than had been secured at that time. That report is in the process of being updated.
The state has already spent $160 million on preliminary phases of the SR 167 extension.
Another section of SR 167 to the north is in the last year of a five-year High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes pilot project, and their usage has continued to grow. WSDOT will be requesting they be made permanent. THere’s one each northbound and southbound, free to cars with two or more occupants and available to solo drivers for a “dynamic toll’ which varies by time of day and congestion levels. Daily tolled trips on the SR 167 pilot project HOT laneshave more than tripled to 3,400 per weekday since opening,WSDOT told the House Transportation Committee earlier this month. Revenues from the lanes continue to exceed their operational expenses, though narrowly.