by Matt Rosenberg January 28th, 2013
A state tolling advisory panel for the new deep-bored tunnel on State Route 99 in central Seattle is signaling its support for a linked, regional tolling policy affecting all the major highways in Central Puget Sound, partly to neutralize emerging concerns about toll-avoiding drivers clogging adjacent untolled highways. Publicly released just last week, a progress report to the chair of the Washington State Transportation Commission Reema Griffith from the Co-Chairs of the SR 99 Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management, Claudia Balducci and Maud Daudon, suggests that the state look seriously at a “systems approach to tolling” involving at least four more major highways in addition to the three already tolled.
Balducci, also a Bellevue City Council Member, and Daudon, ex-Chief Financial Officer of the Port of Seattle, go on to explain, “As the region moves forward with studying and tolling additional highways, the committee sees value in analyzing a systems approach to tolling – 1-5, I-405, I-90, SR 99 – to reduce diversion across the regional roadway network.” Any such decisions would require further study and would ultimately have to be approved by the state legislature, which so far has taken a piecemeal approach to electronic tolling. The committee is to issue its final report in mid-2013.
The issue is gradually coming to a head, though, due to tolling plans approved for a number of highways. In the case of the new, tolled tunnel on SR 99, the committee led by Balducci and Daudon reports three tolling rate options have been analyzed so far but that “the initial analysis has found scenarios that reach the $200 million capital funding target result in high levels of diversion to city streets and I-5…Diversion was significant in each of the scenarios and created congestion that would interfere with city and regional traffic, as well as international trade and logistics operations at the Port terminals.”
The tunnel’s total price tag is $3.1 billion. The $200 million from tolling would be raised over 30 years as part of the financing plan. I-5 is a short distance west of and parallel to SR 99. Both are major north-south routes through the western edge of the metro Seattle region.
At the same time, electronic tolling has been implemented on the SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington, connecting Seattle with Bellevue and Redmond. This is causing some diversion of traffic onto a parallel highway and bridge corridor several miles south, I-90. The state this week is holding a series of initial community meetings on looming plans to toll I-90, in part to minimize diversion to it from drivers trying to avoid SR 520 tolls; and also because toll revenue from I-90 is being eyed by the state as a way to meet a $1.4 billion funding gap for a planned replacement bridge on SR 520 that is considered vital for safety reasons.
In addition, electronic tolling has already been implemented on special express lanes in the southeastern part of the region, on the north-south highway SR 167. A state study effort is also expected to lead to tolled express lanes on the badly congested north-south highway I-405 o the Eastside. Vehicles with two or more passengers are exempt from the tolls on SR 167 and on I-405 those with three or more are expected to be exempt. To the southwest, the southbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge portion of SR 16 is also tolled. Directly south and just west of Seattle, the state has also begun to explore tolled express lanes on SR 509 to fund its extension to I-5 south of Sea-Tac Airport.
But there is no unifying policy for tolling of highways in Central Puget Sound. Each decision is handled separately.
Wearing her Bellevue City Council Member hat, Balducci in a December public meeting suggested to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s tolling chief Craig Stone that a regional approach was needed.
Another state advisory panel is also examining an even more sweeping policy option to control congestion and repair broken surface transportation funding mechanisms. That is the idea of a so-called “vehicle mileage tax” or “road user charge,” as the state prefers to call it. It would involve technology to track where drivers drive, and charge them varying rates for very mile on every road. It is considered controversial and at least 10 years away from implementation. The concept has earned preliminary approval from that panel and the legislature in coming months is to decide on funding more detailed study.
RELATED: WSDOT Tolling Update to Washington State Senate Transportation Committee, 1/24/13.