Blog Highway Congestion Pricing Advances On West Coast

Proposals for highway congestion pricing and electronic tolling advanced this week in the San Francisco Bay Area, metro Portland and Seattle-Puget Sound. Here’s a rundown.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in the Bay Area, the Municipal Transportation Commission yesterday approved a funding plan that would establish regional High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes on 800 of the region’s 1,200 miles of highway lanes by 2025. Existing and under-construction carpool, or High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, would be converted to electronically-tolled HOT lanes which would be free to HOVs, transit and motorcycles and also open to solo drivers for a fee that varies according to time of day and congestion level. In addition, new HOT lanes would be built, creating a seamless regional network. Free general purpose lanes on the affected highways would still be available for those who prefer to avoid tolls, though travel times would be slower than in the HOT lanes.
The idea is to give drivers and employers an added incentive to avoid peak-hour solo vehicle trips if possible, but also to give drivers a guaranteed congestion-free option, for a price, if they have to drive alone at peak hours. The regional plan for the Bay Area would entail HOT lane charges in the range of 20 to 60 cents per mile at the outset, working up to as much as $1 per mile by 2030. Four pilot projects can advance now, but the state legislature must approve the whole regional plan. A bill is already pending in Sacramento. More on the plan here, from the MTC.
In the Portland region, the last of six required agencies signed off this week on moving forward with plans for a new bridge across the Columbia River on Interstate 5 connecting Portland and Clark County, Wash., with congestion pricing, an extension of Portland’s light rail system, and separated pedestrian and bike lanes. The Columbia River Crossing plan includes fixes to several problem interchanges north and south of the bridge that constrict traffic and reduce safety. The old bridge (actually two bridges) is a major choke point in the I-5 corridor. An application for federal funds can now proceed, while the Washington and Oregon transportation departments refine the project components and cost estimates. The preliminary price tag is $4.2 billion. There will be three through lanes and up to three auxiliary lanes in each direction. Preliminary estimates are that tolls would vary from $1.28 to $2.56 one-way.
Washington Governor Christine Gregoire (right) and Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski last month reiterated they want to see tolling on the new bridge, and, in a specific reference to congestion pricing, “a finance plan that balances revenue generation with demand management.” Other key political players involved with the project support congestion pricing, as well. Expect congestion pricing and electronic tolling to be applied to all lanes of the bridge, with HOVs and transit crossing free. A related issue is whether to toll the parallel Interstate 205 bridge across the Columbia, several miles to the east, in order to minimize diversion of traffic there from toll-evading drivers on the new bridge. That’s a good idea.
Cascadia Center last month contributed this Sunday op-ed to The Oregonian, describing how Columbia River Crossing could help drive a larger plan for increased transit and “greening” of vehicular travel in the Portland region. That theme was expanded upon in an Oregonian editorial shortly thereafter.
Tolling was also front and center this week further north in Cascadia. In Central Puget Sound, a State of Washington report commissioned to help a special tolling committee and then the state legislature decide on toll rates and venues across Lake Washington was released yesterday. Lawmakers and the governor are already committed to electronically-tolled congestion pricing on the State Route 520 bridge across the lake. Legislation passed earlier this year has jump started the decision making process. One tidbit from yesterday’s news: peak hour one-way tolls could range from $2.15 to $3.80, depending what’s chosen. Off-peak tolls would be lower. The current 520 bridge must be replaced because it’s unsafe in high windstorms or major earthquakes. The questions are when to begin the tolling, at what rates and, most importantly, whether to also toll the parallel Interstate 90 bridge across the lake.
Legislators want $1.5 to $2 billion in toll revenues from cross-lake vehicular travel, to help fund the $4 billion SR 520 bridge replacement. That’s prudent, to say the least, given declining federal aid and scant state funding for the project now. A memo prepared for the state shows the toll revenue target for the SR 520 project can’t be met without tolling I-90 as well (see p. 2). The state treasurer has said that any acceptable SR 520 finance plan requires tolling I-90. Some lawmakers and others object, believing all tolls collected on a given highway should stay there.
But metro region highways are part of wider or longer corridors which include other highways and transit. In Central Puget Sound three such corridors are 520 and 90 (east-west and parallel); I-5 and SR 99 (north-south and closely parallel); and the extended north-south corridor on the Eastside of SR 522, I-405 and SR 167. A more future-facing “systems” approach to surface transportation planning and tolling is best. Spend revenues raised in a corridor within that corridor, but understand the nature of the beast.