The “Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management” met Tuesday and the notes are up online now. A draft recommendation for the tolls was presented and there are a few interesting bits of information in the recommendation:

  • The tunnels would be $1 for off-peak and $1.25 for preak, because anything higher would be an extreme deterrent to using the tunnel.
  • About a third of the tolling money would be eaten up with collection cost.
  • Over 30 years, $150 million would go to transit, or $5 million per year.
  • $200 million would go to construction costs for the tunnel, which is supposed to cost $3.1 billion

In order to raise $1.1 billion off a $1 toll, you need a billion trips, which over 30 years works out to 91,300 a day or so. That seems a little high to me, but we’ll see. If their estimates are anything like the SR-520 numbers, it’s going to be tough to get all that money. If the toll revenue comes up short, I would hope that the transit funding is preserved, but I guess will have to see about that, too.

38 Replies to “SR 99 Tunnel Toll Update”

  1. I think the $1 rate is just to slip the camels nose under the tent, or a predatory ‘Teaser Rate’ as some consumer groups like to call them.

  2. When you’re dealing with tolls, a $1 toll and a $2 toll don’t make much difference on demand, but the difference between a $0.01 and no toll at all is quite large.

    Why? First, you get people that are philosophically opposed to paying tolls at all and will avoid them as a matter of principle. Second, you have infrequent users who don’t want to go through the hassle or expense of getting a Good2Go account to pay the toll (or pay a bill that eventually comes in through the mail).

    One big sub-category of the second group is out-of-towners who are driving rental cars (*). Rental car companies are notorious for marking up any toll bills they get in the mail by a huge amount. Or, they will charge the customer as much as $10 a day to rent a toll transponder, even if the rental is a full week and the transponder only gets used once. On top of that, they typically charge the customer the “cash/pay-by-mail rate” for tolls, rather than the discounted “transponder rate” charged by the state. The difference, the rental company simply keeps for themselves.

    Zipcar is a rare exception to this, although Car2Go gouges on tolls you similar to a conventional rental company. For instance, a round trip across the 520 bridge on Car2Go could cost as much as $20 on toll charges alone.

    1. to be fair, there problem is some work that needs to be done to figure out who needs to pay the toll when the bill shows up.

      1. True, but in this day and age, there is no reason why it can’t be completely automated. At just $10 a pop, good to go passes are cheap – there is no reason a rental company can’t just have them on every car, when the car itself costs 2,000 times that much. Once the payment to WSDOT is made via good-to-go, the process of figuring out whose credit card to charge is easily automatable and can be done entirely by computer software. A 3% add-on fee to cover the credit card transaction would be reasonable, but the way they currently do it suggests that they are either operating with the technology of 20 years ago or are simply gouging consumers because the can.

        Any business loves hidden fees that consumers don’t notice until it’s too late. It’s exactly the same reason why the rates that cell phone companies charge for text messages is so out-of-proportion to the cost to the companies to actually transmit those messages.

      2. Any business loves hidden fees that consumers don’t notice until it’s too late. It’s exactly the same reason why the rates that cell phone companies charge for text messages is so out-of-proportion to the cost to the companies to actually transmit those messages.

        Good point

    2. I agree asdf. There are plenty of people who refuse to pay a toll, regardless of what it costs.

      Meanwhile, it costs $2.25 to ride a bus, but only $1.00 to go through a tunnel. That doesn’t seem right to me. If a two dollar toll would force people to use alternatives, why wouldn’t a two dollar fare? The fare should be higher — people will pay it, or they wouldn’t go that way even it costs a nickel.

    3. I won’t deal with “after the fact” tolls, but I have no problem with “attendant at the booth” tolls — which, by the way, avoid that rental car trap.

      Every toll bridge should have one attended booth. You only need one — for the people in rental cars, etc.

  3. I’m sorry, but this whole tolling scenario is driving me NUTS.
    At a buck each, over 30 years, they generate 1.1 Bil in revenue, BUT, by the time all the handout are made, there is only $240m left to actually pay for the tunnel. Here’s a list of the hogs at the trough.
    $350m Boss Hog – Outside agency collecting the tolls
    $200m Vendors, Contractors, Consultants, Bondsman to buy and install all the hardware
    $160m Worker Bees to keep fixing things for 30 years
    $150m Transit Agencies to absorb the effects of dealing with 20% more surface traffic
    240m left over for the original project, which on a $3.1b cost is nearly a rounding error.
    I don’t mind paying taxes (user fees), but when only 20% goes to the intended use, I feel like crap.

    1. I think the $160M for operations and maintenance is the intended use, too, even if it doesn’t go toward initial construction costs. If you count that it’s more like 37%, but that’s still terrible. Installing a tolling system that only projects to raise twice the amount of money invested in toll collection is ridiculous, especially compared to the extravagant projections we got when the project was being sold to the people.

      Deep Bore Tunnel: great scam, or the greatest scam?

      1. Deep Bore Tunnel: great scam, or the greatest scam?

        Honestly, I would not be surprised if traffic numbers were around 40,000 per day rather than 90,000. At the point we might not even have tolls covering their collection costs.

      2. What do East Coasters think about their EZ Pass? Does it have such high overhead costs? Does it work the same?

      3. If the purpose of the tunnel is to move people, why is transit not considered part of the intended use? It’s almost like you’re saying “if only the tunnel were free, then we can cut transit and have everyone drive without clogging up the surface streets so much”.

      4. I do not understand why the system would cost $550 million for an “outside agency” to collect tolls or for “buying and installing the hardware”. I’m pretty sure any of the agencies in the Northeast who already operate toll roads and bridges could get you set up for a LOT less than that. The cost of building a tollbooth or two and setting up EZ-Pass detectors cannot be this high.

        Heck, subcontract it to Illinois or New York and you’d probably get it done cheaper than that. These numbers just seem way off for a completely mature system where there’s nothing new to develop.

  4. I don’t know that there’s any reason to even hope transit mitigation funds would be preserved in the case of a shortfall. This is the same WSDOT that just (as far as I understand it) just flat-out didn’t pay transit mitigation it promised to KCM for disruptions to West Seattle transit caused by current construction.

    1. I sure don’t envision WSDOT going to bat for transit IF more mitigation was needed because, more traffic, including trucks wanting to skip the toll, made it’s way onto surface streets.
      WSDOT: “We’re raising tolls so that Metro can pay for all the addition service hours we are costing them by slowing traffic to a crawl during the peak hours. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you”

    2. The Legislature controls the WSDOT budget. They’re the ones who didn’t fully fund transit mitigation during tunnel construction.

    3. I can almost guarantee that transit funding would be the first thing cut if revenues don’t meet expectations. Look at the alternatives: collection costs, which are obviously necessary to get any of that revenue; capital costs, which are basically going to have been spent by the time revenue service begins; then operations and maintenance, which you can really only skimp on so much. When and if it becomes apparent that $1.1 billion isn’t happening in the first 30 years we can probably expect to see the transit funds start drying up.

      1. Since the draws on the spigot in the graphic above are in priority order, yep it’s transit that will just get what’s left over. It’s curious that the glasses for the other revenue sinks are half-full, but the glass for transit is full. It’s as if whoever drew the graphic thought that $5M/yr for transit was plenty.

      2. aw, all those other costs are likely to rise, so WSDOT is showing larger glasses, capable of holding more.
        Transit’s glass is full, therefore incapable of taking on any more cash.
        I love graphical policy making.

      3. Since the draws on the spigot in the graphic above are in priority order, yep it’s transit that will just get what’s left over. It’s curious that the glasses for the other revenue sinks are half-full, but the glass for transit is full. It’s as if whoever drew the graphic thought that $5M/yr for transit was plenty.

        Yeah, I got the same thing from it, but I tried not to focus on it. I don’t need any more reasons to be depressed than $3.1 billion for (optimistically) 1 billion rides, many of which could be diverted. Makes the bus look like a bargain.

  5. A billion trips wouldn’t be needed to raise a billion dollars because the toll will go up over time to keep up with inflation.

      1. From slide 14 in the WSDOT presentation you linked to:

        Strategies for Tolling the SR 99 Tunnel and Minimizing Traffic Diversion

        Issue: Address escalation of toll rates over time.

        Possible recommendation:
        • To keep pace with inflation, assume 1.3 percent annual toll rate escalation.
        • With escalation, Scenario 7 generates over $1 billion over 30 years.
        • Without escalation, generates $125 million less revenue.

      2. Don’t read the slides without listening to the talk. This is from the document that I quoted:

        The ACTT
        Committee appreciates that for financial planning purposes the Office of the State Treasurer does not want to assume such escalation for purposes of debt financing. However, as a practical matter it seems unlikely that the toll rates would remain unchanged for 30 years and rate increases over time could
        generate revenue for investments other than the initial capital need. Including escalating rates could Possible recommendations for consideration by the ACTT 2 an. 14, 2014 generate an additional $125 million over 30 years above a scenario with the same toll rates that do not adjust with inflation.

        Basically, they are not allowed to use inflation in their payback structure by state law, but that inflation would mean the bonds would get paid back faster.

        Basically, the are (rightly, probably) calling out that their charts look worse because they cannot factor in inflation.

  6. Don’t forget vehicles with more than 2 axles. I’m assuming 99 tolling per axle will be similar to 520 tolling per axle. Any idea what percentage of vehicles crossing 520 have 2+ axles? You may want to factor that into your back of the beer mat calcs.

    1. According to the committee presentation, they want to keep freight diversion to about 20%. Considering that to truckers, time can be easily translated into money, they may be able to get away with fairly high multi-axle toll rates.

      1. Why in the world do they think they can retain 80% of the truck traffic that uses the Viaduct today? The tunnel goes nowhere trucks want to go. How many do you see on Aurora North? Trucks that use the Viaduct enter or exit via the Elliott/Western couplet.

      2. Presumably, when looking at diversion, they are only looking at trips that could usefully use the tunnel.

      3. @Anandakos – Good point. I think a lot of those trucks will use the tunnel anyway, but they will go to their destination via Fremont or the first exit for the tunnel (circling around if necessary). A lot of them will also just go on the surface streets the whole way. Anyway you cut it, traffic will be worse than when we had the viaduct. Unless, of course, lots of people switch to using transit (which is unlikely to happen because we didn’t allocate much money for that). Oops.

        I think this is the part of the picture that people don’t get. For example, traffic through Fremont will be a lot worse. If you are trying to get from Ballard to West Seattle (or anywhere south on 99) you are are going to go through Fremont to get there. You can’t go Western, like you used to. This will clog up 39th and Market/46th quite a bit.

        All of this suggests that the fee should be bigger. The folks who want to take this tunnel really want to take this tunnel. Lots of people will be on the surface or on I-5 just because it is the only route that makes sense (anyone trying to get to or from downtown is likely to avoid 99 even if it is free).

      4. @Ross, aw,

        I agree with both your points, but honestly, I’d call your caveats — ignoring current Elliott/Western trips as “not usefully use[able for] the tunnel” and “go[ing] on the surface streets the whole way” — as the very definition of “diversion”.

        So either the analysts been smoking whole bricks of Washington’s newest retail product OR they’re lying out their alimentary exits. Neither is conducive to a high degree of public confidence in their work and they should be called on it.

      5. aw,

        Ah, I just got how you’re using “diversion”: would a truck which could use the tunnel, say to go to Fremont or Ballard, continue to use it at $X toll? The diversion I’m thinking of is the up-front stupidity of building a “replacement” for the Viaduct which serves only about half the Viaduct’s current trips.

      6. The first exit is between John and Thomas Streets, although those are too small for trucks so they’d presumably have to go to Mercer. If there’s a turnback to Denny Way they could use that and go straight to Magnolia. Otherwise, I can’t see many of them going up and down West Mercer Place because it’s so narrow and steep, so I guess they’d go back to Denny somehow.

      7. A nice little bit in a 2009 Seattle Times article ($) linked from Wikipedia, by Mike Lindblom:

        “King County will seek state authority to raise more money through a car-tab tax of 1 percent to fund $190 million for transit capital costs, mainly for buses, along with $15 million a year for operations….
        King County Executive Ron Sims said the car-tab tax would allow up to a 25 percent increase for transit throughout the county…. If state lawmakers allow it, the 1 percent car-tab tax ($100 annually on a $10,000 vehicle) would be enacted by the Metropolitan King County Council.”

        It’s so nice of the state to allow King County to pay for additional transit to mitigate the impacts of the state’s tunnel. Oh, except that the state didn’t end up doing that at all. It got sacrificed in an anti-tax deadlock in Olympia. Oh well, at least we can have STB joyrides through the tunnel (bring your own vehicle, motorized only).

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