Proposed SR-520 Toll Rates

Tuesday the Washington State Transportation Commission, which has toll setting authority, released it’s recommendations for SR-520 tolling. The rate vary by time of day but not dynamically like HOT lanes.  This proposal has been years in the making. Two years ago the state legislature asked WSDOT to look at tolling options for the cross lake corridor. The report outlined ten tolling scenarios, five that only tolled SR-520 and five that toll both SR-520 and I-90.

More after the jump.

Toll Rate Scenarios

At the time the state legislature had a goal of raising $1.5 billion to $2 billion from toll revenue. Only one SR-520 only tolling scenario was able to get to the lower limit of the goal, while all dual bridge scenarios easily meet or surpassed the goal. In light of this and strong opposition from cities along I-90 (most notably Mercer Island) state politicians moved forward cautiously with tolls only on SR-520, but posed to reexamined tolls on I-90 if congestion significantly increased because of diversion.

The problem is the state still has a $2 billion funding gap. That money is going to have to come from somewhere, and the only places money like that can be had is through tolls on I-90, a regional revenue package of some sort, a state-wide gas tax increase, or some combination of those three.  Tolls on I-90 look to be the only viable funding solution, at least for a majority of the gap.

A state-wide gas tax would have a hard time in the current anti-tax mood. Usually the Puget Sound region overpowers the rest of the state on issues like this but I have a feeling that support is too soft to overpower the rest of the state like it did 5 years ago with I-912 (Nickel Package rollback). I’m also very skeptical that a regional transportation package would pass. A package would have to enjoy strong support in Seattle which seems unlikely since ST2 has now passed. Puget Sound voters just don’t support road heavy packages enough (R-51) or simply reject them (first Prop 1).

Road packages simply can’t pass because they get attacked from on the right by conservatives who won’t support any package and on the left by liberals that swing against it. Liberals are the real swing vote and if state legislators want support they need to significantly sweeten the deal for the things Seattle voters want.

53 Replies to “SR-520: Peak Tolls $3.50, Still Need $2,000,000,000.00”

  1. You are right that the prospects of a tax package passing to pay for this are dismal. Statewide such a package would never pass because Eastern WA thinks that they pay for everything in Western WA and they would never pass any funding package for this side of the mountains. And regionally a package wouldn’t pass either because conservatives would vote against it as a matter of principle, and liberals would vote against it on environmental reasons.

    Your comments about ST2 are also correct. There has traditionally been resistance to letting Seattle self-fund transit because the road-warrior types know that they need supposedly “tax-happy” Seattle votes to pass any funding package. As the theory goes, “allow Seattle to raise taxes for the things they want and they will be less likely to vote ‘Yes’ on the things we want.” This is partly the rational that led to the disastrous R+T proposal.

    The fact that Nickels was able to overcome the R and R+T style of thinking and even get ST2 to the ballot speaks wonders of his skill as a Mayor. Now I find myself just hoping that Mayor McSchwinn can pull together enough courage to propose a funding package for the study phase of the Aloha Ext – Nickels would have it done by now….

    1. Seattle seems to have a pattern of disliking mayors while they’re in office but missing them after they’re gone.

  2. Seattle Times is having a Webinar today at 12 noon for Q&A on the tolls.
    Going to the Transportation Commission’s web site for a look at their proposal yields ‘not much’ in the way of what they have proposed. Kinda sad, seeing as public support for this is a major criteria, else lots of people just drive across the bridge and treat the notices by WSDOT as they would parking tickets – Junk Mail.

  3. Does 1053 kill this funding source? Wouldn’t we now need 2/3 of the legislature to approve any tolls – an impossible number to get for tolling both bridges, and maybe a tough one to even toll one bridge?

    1. Tim Tyman’s initiative requires a simple majority to increase fees (not 2/3). It’s unclear whether or not tolls are classified as a fee, but if so, the Commission would simply forward their recommendation to the legislature. Given the wide support for this project, I don’t believe it will be an issue for the legislature to get a simple majority.

      1. Plus, the legislature has already authorized tolling of the 520 bridge, specifically delegating toll-setting authority to WTC. So, even if the courts finds that I-1053 applies to tolls, 520 and the Narrows Bridge may be grandfathered in.

  4. Ditch the lids and the toll wouldn’t hardly be needed…

    I am really not looking forward to the cut through traffic in Bellevue, alot of people can’t afford to pay that much.

    1. How will people cross the lake by cutting through Bellevue? The tolls are only on the bridge, not the entire length of 520.

      1. Is that clear? I thought we could also be paying tolls on the Portage Bay Viaduct, even if we’re just exiting at Montlake. And might the east end of the toll zone be at the I-405 interchange?

      2. Hmm, I thought it was. All the language I’ve seen talks about tolling to “cross” 520, not to “use” it. However, it seems yet to be defined. According to the “Build 520 – Compare Scenarios”page:
        9. Would I pay a toll if I use 520 but don’t cross the lake?
        Some of the initial scenarios featured tolls on segments of the highway (such as I-5 to Montlake) that will be improved as part of the project. However, public feedback from people and governments on both sides of the lake indicated that these “segment” tolls are not supported. The legislature will make the final determination on where tolls will be collected.

      3. David people from north / east of 520 will either cut through to I90 on surface streets or on 405. They talk about it all the time, one of the reasons they propose to toll I90 as well…

  5. Obviously, people who cross the bridge on public transit won’t have to pay the toll, but will agencies like Metro and Sound Transit have to pay the toll, or will they be exempt?

    1. That’s not “obvious” Metro and Sound Transit could easily add a surcharge to those routes which cross the bridge.

      1. According to the rate proposal, transit buses would not have to pay the toll.

        The following vehicles shall qualify for exemptions:

        (1) The department maintenance vehicles directly involved in
        bridge and roadway maintenance on the SR 520 Bridge, including the
        department’s incident response vehicles responding to incidents and
        WSDOT tow trucks stationed on the bridge;

        (2) Washington state patrol vehicles directly providing
        service to the SR 520 Bridge corridor;

        (3) Publicly owned or operated transit buses;

        (4) Passenger motor vehicles used as ride-sharing as defined
        in RCW 46.74.010, and that are compliant with RCW 46.16.023 and
        82.12.0282;

        (5) Privately owned and operated passenger buses with a
        carrying capacity of sixteen or more persons, including the
        operator, as defined in WAC 468-510-010(2), all of which must be
        similarly marked or identified to display the business name and/or
        logo on the driver and passenger sides of the vehicle, and operate
        on a fixed schedule and fixed route, and meet the annual
        certification requirements of the department;

        (6) Vehicles owned by foreign governments and international
        organizations. A vehicle transponder is not required for this
        exemption;

        (7) Authorized emergency vehicles on bona fide emergencies.
        The vehicle must be equipped with a transponder associated with an
        authorized prepaid account or an authorized representative may
        apply for a toll credit for each emergency trip. The credit must
        be applied for within six months of the trip date. The department
        will establish and oversee the procedure for emergency vehicle toll
        credits.

      2. Exemption number 7 seems weird to me why would an emergency vehicle be on the 520 bridge for any other reason then to respond to an emergency and even if they were on the bridge for any other reason then to respond to an emergency it seems that weird that one government agency would be charging another agency.

    2. The WTC has been *very* hesitant to let anyone off the hook. I think the only exception for the TNB is police or fire responding to a 911 call.

      1. That would get expensive for Metro and ST if they were charged to cross. I count 22 routes that cross the 520 bridge. The 255/256 alone crosses approximately 100 times per day.

      2. That’s true, but the federal Urban Partnership agreement, which funds the tolling infrastructure and capital bus investment, requires exemption of buses from tolls.

  6. I wish legislatures would pass (or at least propose) a law saying that all taxes collected for infrastructure projects needed to be spent in the counties in which they were collected with yearly exception votes. Eastern Washington voters might actually start to consider just how much they are subsidized.

    1. Exactly, and they would vote for such a law because the “believe” that they actually subsidize the westside…..

      I’d propose that 95% of all gas tax and car tab revenue that is raised in a given county must be spent in that same county. The other 5% of revenue to be spent on general overhead. Cross county funding transfers to be allowed only by a positive vote of both counties.

      1. On a sad side note, a coworker of mine complained about how WADOT is doing a horrible job because traffic has gotten worse since HOV lanes were implemented, in what, the 1980? No clue that our population has increased since then and that our roads are carrying far more cars than it used to.

  7. Why not toll both SR-520 and I-90 but only toll one half or the other of the I-90 bridge, between Seattle and MI *or* between MI and Bellevue but not both? That way, MIers can enter/leave the island free, even if not always in their preferred direction.

    1. I’d be very surprised if any toll on I-90 included the East Channel crossing. The tolling structure will be on he main span west of MI.

      Assuming, of course, that tolling I-90 happens at all.

      Clearly it’s a better idea to toll both than just to toll 520 and force a third to half the cars that would more efficiently cross 520 onto 90.

      There is a lot of resistance to tolling “for congestion control”, though.

  8. I’m surprised that they didn’t include a surcharge for transit users and bicyclists (future bike path) The way this state is going, with all users pay to use, and the whining by auto drivers who think everyone else is getting a free ride. It would have made sense that the no one would get to use the bridge for free.

    One total benefit is that the traffic on this bridge is likely to get a lot better. I nearly never use it anymore because its so crowded when in fact the extra toll would save me the same in gasoline costs by the shorter route IF I wasn’t idling stuck in traffic.

    1. Yeah, they should just keep raising the toll until Montlake ceases being a parking lot every morning.

      Might initiate a private Mosquito fleet departing from Magnuson Park or the Fill to Kirkland at rush hour.

      1. Nice daydream, bili, but such there’s no way such a ferry would be as cost-effective as a transit bus serving the same corridor. Costly luxury service for a few, or way higher subsidies; either way, not a good deal.

  9. Considering that, on top of this $2 billion target, the bridge is still $1.8 billion under funded, I wouldn’t be surprised if it never ends up getting built, as east link, and some kind of Seabus style ferry service from kirkland, comes online.

    1. WSDOT appears to be ready to build what it has money for: the Eastside corridor and the floating bridge itself. 2014 result: Driving West from Bellevue, you have a whole new 520 until you get to the West High-rise, then it narrows back down to the existing West-Side 4 lane highway.

    1. This is a good question. I don’t like either of these projects but 520 clearly has more regional significance (and at least helps transit with the addition of HOV lanes). Of course, in the case of 520 there’s no clause forcing Seattle to pay for cost overruns, so it’s riskier for the state. Still, I’d like them to choose one at most and 520 is the one I’d choose.

      1. Yes, it has HOV lanes, but losing the Montlake flyer stop has a bigger negative effect on cross-lake 520 transit than the positive effect of the HOV lanes. Of course, interlining all the buses to serve UW Station would fix that problem, but Metro and ST aren’t doing that.

        Don’t get me started on the plan to put the bus stop nearest to UW Station 3-5 minutes’ walk away.

    2. Maybe that’s the State’s endgame. Tear down the viaduct ( as a public hazard ), divert the money to SR-520, and tell Seattle ” The viaduct replacement is your problem”

      Then we can see McSchwinn deploy the Seattle PedoCab Fleet staffed by members of Nicklesville

      win-win all around

      1. Exactly. I wondered just what the 99 tunnel would achieve, if local traffic that used the downtown ramps on the current viaduct would have to use surface streets anyway as there would be no local downtown access from the tunnel. Surely it would be better to have all through traffic on the I-5, and local access only on the new waterfront surface streets.

      2. I believe the most recent gas tax hike allocated $2 billion to SR 99, though some of that will be spent on the south end of the viaduct. The thing is the state seems to want the highway more than the city does. I mean, they decided they’re perfectly willing to put the Ballard/Magnolia traffic on a surface road, but SR 99 must remain a highway; it’s their highway.

  10. On Scenarios 3, 4 and 9, which toll both bridges, you can see a potential solution to Metro Transit’s long-term funding gap. You also see means for Gregoire to meet the promise she made on transit funding with the January 2009 Deep Bore Tunnel agreement ($190 million in capital, $15 million in annual operating. The current tolling authority does not allow tolling revenue to be spent on transit, but former Executive Sims documented the public’s support for excess tolling revenue to fund tranit service.

    1. Yep. With SR-520 only tolling there is no room for supporting greater cross-lake transit service. It’s actually kind funny that to support the extra cross lake transit service (as part of mitigation for the tolls) we are using property taxes to fund the service, not the tolls themselves. Talk about a disconnect.

  11. Liberals are the real swing vote

    I never thought the day would come when I would read that sentence. I feel so powerful!

  12. A new bridge will increase the value of property on both sides.

    WA state should reassess valuations…get rid of restrictions on increases for long timers…and apply fair property taxes to all who benefit.

    1. How do you know that, John? How can you separate out the increase/decrease in property values on a given parcel near the bridge, differentiate that change from all the other factors that influence property values?

      1. John being near a busy freeway is actually not great for values… now 520 will have even more capacity for smog (more capacity)! hurray!

  13. Live with the cloud of I-1053 and take advantage of the silver lining. We can now lobby the legislature to require that part of the tolls pay for transit as a condition to getting enough votes to pass the tolling legislation.

    Tell your legislators not to approve 99 or 520 tolling unless at least half of the toll money is directed toward transit improvements (which, btw, don’t actually have to be downtown, since building Link faster has a rather direct effect on improving downtown traffic).

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