The idea that tolling is some insidious stealth tax, or a fundamental violation of the inalienable right to drive anywhere, for free, with unlimited subsidy is a well-established cancer on the Puget Sound’s discourse. Nevertheless, I was astonished at the boundaries of the 520 tolling debate, as presented by Ellis Conklin in the Seattle Weekly last week and Alexa Vaughn in The Seattle Times ($) yesterday:
Had [they been notified], then perhaps there may have been a possibility of allowing motorists to drive for free across the 520 floating bridge – at least the idea would have been broached in a meeting of the seven commissioners.
PCC Logistics, for example, relies on westbound truckers to deliver goods on time to its Port of Seattle facility. The company handles import, export, refrigerated and general cargo for customers.
Even though its trucks will be rerouting, Beth Sanchez, the company’s customer-service manager, says that the company is still warning customers that there could be long and unpredictable delivery delays….
Companies and workers will also have to deal with the costs of extra gas and, if using the westbound 520 bridge, the tolls. The state has no plans to waive or reduce tolls for crossing 520 and will be allowing intermittent openings for boats.
The decision to not reduce tolls for those traveling westbound has angered some daily bridge-crossers.
Why, if only there was some way to make sure 520 would be uncongested, so that freight and other businesses that depend on reliable travel could do so!
The debate as presented in these two reporters — and, to be fair, as framed by Washington State officials who are either unimaginative or muzzled — is basically that it would be great if we could grind 520 to a halt too by lifting the toll, but shucks, we still have to pay for the bridge.
This is absurd. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand our highway capacity and “ease congestion” does massive damage to the environment and ends up inducing the same congestion. But in that debate, the establishment wrings its hands about the economy and the need to move freight around, because time is money. When maintenance dramatically reduces highway capacity, however, no one cares enough about businesses to do the one thing that might help.
I agree that freight operators, the handyman with his tools, and so on need uncongested highways. And because shorter trips on the highway feed directly into their bottom line, tolls are but a fraction of the cost of sitting in traffic because there’s no alternative. The answer, if policymakers really care about businesses like PCC Logistics, is not to suspend the toll but raise the toll to whatever level keeps 520 free-flowing this week.
As an added bonus, the really poor people — that would be the ones on the bus — also benefit from normal operating speeds. In fact, anyone interested in a fast and inexpensive option would naturally gravitate to the choices that consume the least scarce road space, which benefits everyone.