Dulles Toll Plaza (wikimedia)

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.

44 Replies to “The Tolling Discussion is Impoverished”

  1. So, tolling is a kind of a tax. That’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with it. But we should be honest about that.

    Tolling on 520 is being used not to manage demand but to fund a new bridge. That source of revenue is used because the state legislature is unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the bridge. When the revenue generation imperative of highway tolls conflicts with the demand management imperative, this state comes down on the side of revenue generation, because it has no other choice thanks to the Legislature’s unwillingness to raise taxes to a level necessary to fund infrastructure.

    But there are other imperatives. The state won’t raise taxes because businesses are convinced, despite a mountain of contrary evidence, that unless their costs are kept low they will not survive. 520 is tolled in part as a sop to that belief. So when folks propose raising the tolls to manage demand, freight businesses see that as a conflict with their “keep our costs down” imperative. Ultimately they would like everyone else to subsidize their low costs, just as some retailers want workers to subsidize their businesses’ low costs through low wages.

    Any user fee, or fee at the point of us, has long been recognized to be a regressive act. Whether it’s a road bridge or a light rail vehicle, it should be free to use and paid for through general taxation. As to the I-90 closure, the analogue here is LA’s Carmageddon. Provide spare capacity on alternatives, emphasizing transit and biking, and promote it. The results will be favorable, as this morning’s commute appears to have shown.

    1. That’s nonsense. Raising general taxes to pay for the bridge would be the general subsidy of business, and would just cause their cost to increase through reduced productivity sitting in traffic.

      Making people who need uncongested roads pay is what will solve this problem. If you don’t want to pay the toll, or can’t, go around or take the bus.

      1. And the best way to “promote” transit is free flowing lanes, which you can only achieve through tolling.

      2. One can also achieve free flowing lanes by building dedicated ROW for free flowing transit lanes. Not an either/or situation.

        The point I’m making above is that not everyone shares the same imperatives, yet there can still be collaboration and compromise. I’d prefer we be able to use a road or a bus or a Link train free of charge, with the cost paid by general taxes. But I’m also willing to back tolling in certain circumstances, such as the Bay Area’s practice of raising bridge tolls to pay for transit service. I’m less convinced that demand management is a good reason for tolling, but if the revenue goes mostly to transit then it’s much more palatable.

        As I look at the current landscape of transit advocacy in North America, I’m increasingly convinced we’re better off understanding the different imperatives at work rather than trying to convince everyone to abandon theirs and adopt someone else’s alone.

      3. I think what you are proposing is a fluctuation of toll pricing to reflect a certain reliability. I don’t think that model would work for such a short stretch of road. Also, flow condition are different in each direction. For instance how can you develop a reliability pricing model for westbound traffic headed to I-5. If I-5 is backed up and is causing traffic on 520, should the toll go up? Also, EB traffic going across 520 may never back up so could you price the reliability of speed and fund the new bridge? I think that the issue is not as simple as a supply and demand. Maybe you are a proponent of region wide tolling? This may be the only way to fairly charge drivers from your vision.

    2. “So when folks propose raising the tolls to manage demand, freight businesses see that as a conflict with their “keep our costs down” imperative. ” Are you sure about that? There are a lot of politicians and reporters speaking for the freight world, but I wonder whether we see more actual trucks on 90 or 520 during commute hours. Any company that sends their freight on 90 anywhere close to commute hours should evaluate their business practices, as the cost of the driver alone doesn’t make that a good choice.

      1. Ah, but you’re trying to bring facts into a what is a deeply ideological situation. As we saw in the minimum wage debate, plenty of businesses are so deeply wedded to the “our costs must be low or else we DIE!” belief that they will ignore contrary evidence even when it is put in front of their faces.

      2. But I’m afraid you’re describing a straw man. What freight businesses have said they prefer not to have a toll.

      3. When I worked in the previous Seattle mayoral administration freight made it clear to us that they opposed road tolling as a climate action strategy. They also fought hard in the DBT tolling committee to obtain low tolls, would have preferred no tolls on that tunnel yet understood that was unlikely given the political deals that were cut to get the thing funded in the first place.

    3. Tolling is not a “kind of a tax”, tolling is the price of crossing the bridge those who choose to use it, pay it. Call it what you want to call it, it’s not a tax.

    4. Tolling is “regressive,” so instead of charging only those who can afford a private vehicle for crossing the lake, we should impose a general tax burden on everyone, including those who take the bus, telecommute, or carpool, since otherwise they’re not paying their “fair share” of the subsidy for single-occupancy vehicles.


      Should we subsidize gas while we’re at it, since it’s so regressive to make people pay for their own if they choose to drive?

  2. When I’m sitting in traffic on 520 with a team of consultants on our way to a business meeting on the eastside, one thing I like to do to pass the time is start calculating how much billable revenue is sitting in traffic. A $50 toll would be a bargain if it made the commute reliable. Heck, even $100 would probably be worth it. I would assume trucking companies face similar economics.

    1. No, trucking companies don’t face similar economics. Despite occasional rhetoric, time is not that critical for freight. Time measured in days, yes. Hours, no. Minutes, definitely not. Trucks drivers aren’t paid that well relative to the time-sensitivity of deliveries. What happens if your UPS delivery is 1 hour later than expected? Nothing. Even if it is 2 days late you can only complain. Delays on I-90 won’t affect the bottom line.

      This is why the companies are more concerned about tolls than congestion.

      1. That said, however, I don’t understand why truckers have such opposition to tolls, as all their trucking competitors have to pay the same tolls.

        Long haul could shift to rail; short haul to cargo bikes, but urban highway tolling doesn’t affect either of those situations significantly.

      2. The economics of freight isn’t about something being an hour or two late, it’s about having a truck and a driver not being productive for that hour or two. Think about how many packages a UPS driver can deliver in a hour and multiply that by the fee they charge. The money starts to add up fast.

      3. A lot of Truckers are for hire and as such they claim to not have much margins on what they are being paid. The State and the Port of Seattle have been policing heavily the trucks that come into the Port yards for compliance with tire safety because these truckers don’t want to pay for new(er) tires before they absolutely positively have to. That unfortunately leads to lots of tire blow outs on the freeways and not a few accidents. It is a defect of the market mechanism. I would imagine any other cost such as a toll would be vociferously protested by these same truckers.


      4. @AdamBejanParast

        It isn’t the UPS drivers that are affected, it’s the owner-operators that have to bid low to win the contracts. The UPS, FedEx drivers simply pass the toll onto their respective companies as the drivers simply work for their respective companies rather than subcontractors. The ones affected most by tolls are being dinged for having substandard, poorly maintained trailers. These are often the guys that, as in the case a couple of weeks ago, lose the rear axle of their rear trailer, at the I-5 Express Lanes entrance. In other words, they are trying to cut costs to get work.

        That being said, I understand their frustration with tolls, but I understand the flipside. The bridges need to be replaced. The animosity of some, especially in the motorcycle community is that the peds and bicycles won’t be tolled on the newly constructed bicycle and ped path on the new SR 520 bridge. Why not? They’ll get a 10+ foot wide facility barrier separated from live traffic.

        Personally speaking, I don’t mind paying a user fee or use tax. We pay a user fee for on-street parking. It’s the same concept in my mind. It’s a toll. I just think that as a motorcyclist, my toll was less. My motorcycle weighs 500 lbs, 750 with me on it. My truck…500 lbs. Yet, a box truck with two axles can way 25,000 lbs can pay the same as my motorcycle. How much sense does that make? Why should a 500 lb motorcycle occupying far less space and causing far less damage to the roadway pay the same as a 25,000 lb box truck?

      5. For some companies, having a UPS package a day late can increase costs quite a bit.

      6. Because the cost of tolls decrease their competitive advantage compared to other modes of transportation…trains, etc…

  3. So, setting aside the details and looking at the big picture: concern for SOV commuters is being disguised as concern for freight operators and poor people because everyone knows that concern for SOV commuters is a political loser around here.

    Sounds like a win to me!

    1. This is exactly what we saw with the Columbia River Crossing debate down in Portland. The state DOTs and the Washington residents pushed it under the guise of freight mobility and safety. The biggest enemy of freight mobility is the SOV commuter!

      1. You are so right. And it looks like the ‘Pugs shot themselves well north of the foot on the CRC. It wasn’t two weeks after Oregon pulled the plug on its “go-it-alone” investigation that The Ladies Liz and Ann were out on the hustings with a proposal for an all rubber tired replacement bridge with five lanes and no transit element other than HOV lanes.

        Fortunately Portland’s legislators and city government yawned and said essentially, “Ladies, this is dead for a generation. Don’t bother us.”

  4. I absolutely agree and have also suggested that we raise the 520 bridge toll in accordance with what would maintain it’s normal level of activity. That is, we are selling a service and that service should be the same to regular customers, but with a hike in the “rent”. Those who can afford to remain on the bridge remain, those who cannot pay, take the long way around.

    By the way, so far the traffic levels seem incredibly benign.


    A pet theory of mine, is that we don’t need either bridge, but if I had to choose the Seattle-Mercer connection would be completely closed. Let them use a ferry like Vashon.

    1. Well according to the traffic map, it’s a bit dicier now at the interchanges.

      I still ask the question…why?

      Can only one lane of traffic cause that much backup? Are people queuing to use I-90 and holding up other traffic.

      It seems like these interchanges are bad no matter the volume they carry!

    2. 9:00 pm and all roads are solid green.

      Guess there’s nothing doing in Seattle tonight, or else everyone choose this week for a vacation to Hawaii.

      1. Remember that one lane vanishes to the express lanes (currently southbound) at the same time as a whole lot more traffic is weaving to get to the downtown exits. I’ve never been there at rush hour, but I think that jam is more or less stable at that location.

    3. Same puzzlement on I-405 Eastside.

      Here is NE 44th street, jammed up:


      Here is SE 64th, next exit north, flowing:


      There’s no major interchange or destination between these sites of which I’m aware. It just seems to get jammed up, and then not jammed up (and I’ve experienced this many times driving my own vehicle).

      (Note these images will change over time of day so might not make sense later).

    4. Can we get some WSDOT traffic engineers posting on STB?

      I’m at a loss here.

      Traffic from on the Northbound lanes of I-405 from Renton to Bellevue are all gummed up:


      But why? I-90 is green both to Mercer and eastward to Issaquah.

      There’s no other major destinations or interchanges on the route.

      It lets up as soon as it crosses I-90 so can I even conclude they are all trying to into downtown Bellevue?

      Or are they trying to get around downtown Bellevue?

      And get on I-90 Eastbound to Issaquah?

      Seems like no matter what we do we have built-in choke points on our traffic!

  5. Tolling is not a “kind of tax”. It is a use fee. I know Eyman and his ilk want to consider any use fee to be “tax”, but that is not a traditional use of the word. The fee you pay to use a public pool is not a tax. The fare you pay to ride a bus is not a tax. The toll you pay to drive on 520 is not a tax. Taxes are distinguished by not being tied to an actual use, but instead being levied on income, purchases, land value, etc.

    I use the Narrows Bridge frequently. The bridge was financed almost entirely with bonds that are being paid off by a toll. The toll is adjusted periodically based on traffic projections in order to provide enough money to pay off the bonds, maintain a buffer for contingencies, perform some maintenance, and cover the cost of collecting a toll.

    It is about as pure a connection between a use fee and a construction bond as is possible. And there is a dedicated group of citizens who are helping ensure that the money isn’t used for anything else. It is a perfect example of how a public/private partnership can build a major piece of infrastructure with the state incurring little liability. Sort of a Republican dream, I’d think.

    And yet people who purport to be fiscal conservatives are among the loudest critics of this “tax”. I am constantly hearing conspiracy theories about how the toll is set, how the money is used, how liberals in Olympia are stealing our money, our movements are being tracked, etc. It really is bizarre.

  6. I’d rather that we pay a VMT tax and/or a higher gasoline tax rather than a toll. Why?

    1. Not only is tolling a flat user fee for everyone, it’s a flat user fee for whatever kind of car one is driving. That 5-ton SUV of your neighbors pays the same toll that you would, even though you drive a Toyota Prius. Not only does the giant SUV do worse things for the environment, they are harder on the road and wear the pavement away faster! I believe that motorcycles in Washington even pay the same toll as cars, which is patently unfair given their lower impacts on the roadway surfaces.

    2. The choice to have free-flowing versus congested roadways is an interesting tradeoff, but it’s fraught with social inequities too. Why is SR 167 operating with tolling, but not I-90? Is it that Issaquah and North Bend people get preferential treatment for free roadways that Auburn and Kent people don’t. Unless it’s a validly expensive project like a bridge or tunnel, I really have a geographic equity issue with it.

    3. It’s more expensive to collect and administer. Sure technology and toll readers make it administratively easier, but that’s a lot of equipment to install and maintain, in addition to have a separate billing system for each little toll. It’s bean counting to the extreme.

    I’d think it would be better to simply charge a high semi-annual fee as part of our license tags, and give us the option of going in to get tax rebates if we drive less than the targeted VMT for our vehicle. Maybe when faced with excessive tolling across the state, the voters would finally embrace a reform that eliminates tolling challenges. Heaven knows that’s a mountain that will take a lot of power to overcome, so we’ll probably be stuck with tolls for awhile.

    1. 1, 520 tolling is not a flat fee. Don’t worry about the difference in damage done to the roadway by a Prius vs. an Escalade, that’s small potatoes. It’s high axle load trucks that cause more damage to the roadways. The trucks do pay a higher toll with per-axle tolling charges. You can argue whether toll differential is right.

      2. SR-167 is not really tolled in the traditional sense. The HOT lanes give SOVs an option to pay a toll for an uncongested path. Those who don’t want to pay the toll can either stay in the GP lanes or get in a carpool. For I-90, there is no option for SOVs to legally use the HOV lanes (except MI drivers using the express lanes). It makes sense to toll the bridge crossing because it’s a high-cost restriction on access to Seattle and to balance demand between I-90 and SR-520. As a special bonus, it would stick it to the currently entitiled MI residents.

      3. Administrative overhead on toll collection should be a concern. There’s a company in Texas getting rich on the backs of Washington drivers. I wouldn’t be so concerned if it were a WA company getting rich.

    2. #2,

      No, it’s not that Issaquah and North Bend are being favored. It’s that I-90 is Interstate 90 and SR 167 is a state highway. Interstate facilities may not be tolled except those which existed at the time the system was set up (e.g. Ohio, Pennsylvania Turnpikes, NY State Thruway, etc) OR to pay for replacement or augmentation of the capacity of an important structure.

      There are also twenty “pilot” tolling projects, mostly for demand management, but all the slots are currently filled.

  7. A big problem with getting freight on-board with road pricing is that they currently pay substantially higher tolls than other vehicles. While on the 520 bridge, a 7 axle truck pays only 3x the toll of an SOV. On say the Mackinaw bridge, that goes up to 9 times the cost to an SOV, the larger ratio being suitable where the price is meant to pay for wear and tear. The freight industry is in the mindset of fearing tolling for road maintenance and it thus afraid of having to pay tolls that aren’t offset by time savings.

    Perhaps a flat toll rate for all vehicles should be instituted for the 520 bridge?

  8. I rode across 520 on the bus today and, both morning and afternoon, it was wide open. I guess everyone was afraid of carmaggedon and stayed home. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

  9. Your first mistake is to approach this issue from a rational point of view. Tolls make people behave irrationally. You second mistake is to thing that freight would want tolls. Freight wants toll less roads expanded to eliminate congestion and have the costs be born by everyone….

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