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Blog Cascadia Unveils Tolling Proposal for I-5, & SR 99 Tunnel

In a Puget Sound Business Journal op-ed published this morning, our Cascadia Center’s Director Bruce Agnew posits that tolling and private investment could pay for replacement of the shaky Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in Seattle – and for reconfiguration of badly-congested Interstate 5 in the city, as well. Neither are included in a multi-billion-dollar roads and transit ballot measure facing Central Puget Sound voters in November.

…two crucial transportation projects relevant to the Minnesota tragedy are partially on hold — replacement of the central waterfront section of Alaska Way Viaduct on State Route 99, and full funding for reconstruction of the 40-year-old stretch of Interstate 5 from Northgate to Tukwila.
….any notion that the viaduct’s 110,000 daily vehicle trips can be replaced by a series of transit enhancements fails to comprehend the complexity of moving freight in a constricted north-south corridor. Simply put, I-5 can’t take any more traffic and freight can’t take a bus. Solutions so far have been piecemeal and money is scarce.
….So we propose a bold — some would say radical — rethink. Our plan would consider both I-5 reconstruction and added capacity and replacement of the central section of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, within the context of regionwide tolling and partnerships for private capital. A deep-bored tunnel through downtown to replace the viaduct, beginning at Sodo and splitting to either State Route 99 east of the Seattle Center or continuing to the Mercer/I-5 ramp, would segregate local traffic from through traffic, and would avoid the construction disruptions on the central waterfront that threaten businesses….

A twin-bore tunnel is being built right now in Seattle, for light rail: more details in Agnew’s op-ed.

In addition to accelerating the reconstruction of I-5, our plan would redesign the reversible express lanes from Northgate to downtown…(with)…an additional “contra flow lane” in the opposite direction.
This would allow the (I-5) express lanes to operate 24 hours a day in each direction and provide an additional through lane in the difficult downtown area, which currently has only two through lanes. Overpasses and ramps would have to be modified or removed, but a bottleneck of gigantic proportions would be eliminated, and it could be done on the existing footprint. For this premium service, a variable toll would be charged for the express lanes only; drivers could still access the regular lanes free. We’d dedicate a portion of the toll to expand bus rapid transit options as a supplement to current transit investments on I-5 and Highway 99.
How do we pay for such a feat of engineering without added taxpayer exposure? Answer: In addition to tolls, union and public employee pension funds could be invested in these projects and would pay back a return over many years.

In the op-ed, Agnew explains why this is not merely wishful thinking. He concludes:

Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature should consider modifying state law to allow this partnership with union pension funds. And if the November ballot measure fails, (replacement of) the State Route 520 bridge should be added to the I-5/Highway 99 pilot project.
Our failure to think big in the past is one reason we’re in today’s transportation mess. Let’s start now to change that.

Read the whole thing; and let us know what you think, in the comments section of this blog entry.