On 10/10/10, WSDOT will be the first state DOT in the country to toll a existing facility that is currently untolled. A few months ago the state legislature passed ESHB 2211, authorizing the tolling of SR-520. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but still the fact that it passed is no less amazing. For comparison’s sake, not even NYC has stepped up to toll previously untolled bridges or tunnels into Manhattan. Toll on SR-520 has significant, and I believe overlooked implications for tolling in our region.
WSDOT in partnership with KC Metro and PSCR won USDOT funding, and due to the Legislature’s actions will receive a $154 million dollar Urban Partnership grant. The Urban Partnership program aims to reduce congestion through the four T’s:
- Transit ($41 million for buses and P&R expansion, $27 million or ferries)
- Tolling ($63 million for installation and construction of tolling system)
- Technology ($23 million for ATMS)
- Telecommuting ($0, build off of existing TDM program)
During the 2008 legislative session, the state tasked the partner agencies to go out to the public, propose tolling options, and report back. The work, documented here, surprisingly showed that 60% of those questioned (statistically significant phone interview) support tolling SR-520 to pay for a new bridge. This support went up when respondents were told that tolls would be collected electronically and that it would reduce congestion on the bridge. A majority of users also supported tolling I-90, however I-90 users strongly disapproved. Stated differently, a majority of users support tolling existing cross-lake travel on multiple facilities to pay for a new bridge with zero new general purpose capacity. Almost feels like the outer limits right?
I can’t overstate how significant I think this will be for tolling in the central Puget Sounds. SR-520 is at the focal point of forces that until now have not come together. In my opinion this will set a precedent, serving as a perfect example of the benefits of tolls while hinting at how system wide tolling might become a reality.
First off, SR-520 is one of the most congested corridors in the region and it becomes more congested each year. The current congestion is important because drivers will immediately get something for their tolls. While funding a new bridge, tolls will manage demand and improve travel times. PSRC models show that the average travel speed will increase from the current 26 mph to 40 mph. SR-520 tolling will demonstrate what all the transportation wonks know: that demand is elastic. This will confirm our knowledge about the effects of tolls on travel behavior and give the general public a real life example of demand elasticity.
Next, the state and federal governments are broke. Existing funding sources are generating less revenue than expected and many previously funded projects are being deferred each year. Increasing the gas tax is unpalatable (and in the long run a poor funding source) and you all know the history of car tabs. Tolls are the only remaining funding source that has not already been tapped. As in most things, money is the real kicker. The region’s transportation system has been broken and underfunded for decades, but only after project funds dry up do politicians look at a solution that reduces congestion while funding projects at the same time.
While travel demand management and project funding are why tolling new facilities is almost guaranteed, the expansion of tolling to existing facilities and eventually to a system wide level will probably be spurred on by the simple fact that our major road infrastructures comes in pairs (SR-520 and I-90, I-5 and SR-99, I-5 and I-205, etc). In isolation it is hard to make a case for tolling existing infrastructure, but when a road just a few miles away is tolled the case for tolling both, and treating the transportation system like an actual system becomes much stronger.
Although not part of the tolling bill, tolls on I-90 are essential for full SR-520 funding as you can see above. I believe the absence of tolls on I-90 is due to political pressure from I-90 users and an unwillingness on the part of everyone that wants tolling to push too much before the effects of only tolling SR-520 are known. The major fight was to get tolls to fund improved transit service. While I was in Olympia for the first reading of this bill, the Mayor of Mercer Island said that models of diversion from SR-520 to I-90 are “within the margin or error [of no change]”. I have a hard time believing that tolls of roughly 7 dollars a day are within the margin of error for most of us non-millionaires. Although the models are fairly sound it is my understanding that they were based on survey data. Essentially people who use the bridges were asked how tolls would affect their travel behavior. I don’t know how tolls will affect my use of the bridge and I don’t think most people know either. So needless to say, I don’t trust these model inputs. What I do trust is my common sense, and even though I can see SR-520 from my window (and my dad lives in Kirkland), I would likely take I-90 more often than I do now.
I see the effects of SR-520 cascading through the transportation system. SR-520 is the first domino to fall and I-90 is close behind. If significant diversion occurs, which is very possible, tolling I-90 to reduce diversion is the only possible solution. Similarly, SR-99 will be tolled in one form or another when the tunnel is built. I-5 will then face the same effects as I-90 and the call to toll I-5 won’t sound so wacky anymore. Moreover I-5 might also need to be tolled to fully fund the SR-99 tunnel. Where would tolls on I-5 start and end? What about I-405 or SR-509? What about other freeways? No one knows the answer, but each newly tolled facility will make the case for system wide tolling more appealing and obvious. At some point enough people will be paying tolls that it will be seen as unfair if other freeway corridors are not tolled.
Just a few years ago tolling was a taboo idea that greens and transit boosters could only dream about. Times sure have changed. Looking to the future, system wide tolling, the holy grail of transportation management and funding, not only looks possible, it actually looks like a practical and politically acceptable solution to our congestions and transportation funding problems.