At a meeting in Seattle last week, lawmakers heard that the funding gap for replacing the storm- and seismically-vulnerable, crowded four-lane SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington can be shaved from $2.6 billion to $2.38 billion through a sales tax deferral of $220 million. They also had a look at the current menu of gap-closers. It includes more borrowing against electronic tolling revenues, plus higher toll rates on the 520 bridge, and especially, tolling of the parallel I-90 bridge. As ever, tolling’s a flash point, but it needn’t be ugly. It can equitable, and farsighted. Metro Puget Sound needs a comprehensive regional highway corridor electronic tolling plan, typically with express “HOT” lanes aside free lanes, and higher rates at peak hours.
For the new 520 bridge project, which includes work beyond both ends of the bridge, there are three design options ranging in total estimated cost (interest excluded) from $4.5 billion to $6.6 billion, although the legislature has set a $4.6 billion cap. The state has $2 billion either in hand or expected from gas taxes, federal aid, projected revenues from tolling the old bridge and its replacement, and related borrowing.
At the State Route 520 Legislative Workgroup’s meeting Sept. 22, held at the Puget Sound Regional Council in downtown Seattle, Washington Department of Transportation Deputy Sec. David Dye and WashDOT Chief Financial Officer Amy Arnis told members there’s about $400 million of untapped toll funding potential tied to added borrowing from bondholders, based on the currently preferred “medium” rate scenario for tolling the current bridge and new bridge. In addition, WashDOT explained to the group of Seattle and Eastside state legislators, another $300 million could be secured through higher tolls on 520’s current and replacement bridges.
The “medium” rate would be $3.25 (in 2007 dollars) for a one-way peak-hour crossing, starting in 2011 and $3.80 with full project completion in 2016, versus a “high” rate scenario of $3.80 in 2011 and up to $5.35 peak-hour starting in 2016. Off-peak rates would be lower.
Even if higher tolls and more borrowing were authorized to shave $700 million off the gap, another $1.67 billion would be needed, to reach the $4.38 billion funding threshold. According to WashDOT, that could come from tolling the I-90 bridge. Unspecified additional state or regional funding options, and a long-shot federal grant of up to $300 million were also mentioned as supplemental sources. (Outline on p. 64, here.) WashDOT will perform additional analysis on project financing options and report back to the legislative work group Nov. 5. The lawmakers’ panel will issue its recommendations on design choice and project financing Janury 1, 2010.
Another decision, for the state transportation commission, is exactly how to calibrate tolling plans on the SR 520 bridge. On the new six-lane structure, there will be two “general purpose” lanes and one high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane in each direction. All could be tolled according to the same time-variable rate schedule. A related choice will be whether cars and buses in the third, or HOV, lane in each direction on the new 520 bridge would get any sort of rate discount. It’s not a given, because the quicker travel times they will enjoy may be seen as reward enough.
In these respects, tolling on the 520 bridge will likely prove to be at least somewhat atypical from the corridor-length highway tolling that could spread throughout the region. That’s because the latter will feature high occupancy and toll, or so-called “HOT” express toll lanes, alongside free lanes, with free passage in the HOT lanes for transit and either two-plus or three-plus passenger vehicles. And, crucially, solo drivers will be allowed into the HOT lanes for a toll pegged to real time congestion levels.
If as is likely, the I-90 bridge is also tolled to help pay for the new SR 520 bridge, Cascadia Center believes it is important to retain free lanes on the I-90 span as an option for drivers. The legislature decides this one. Our view, simply as a matter of best practices, is that only express lanes should be tolled on the I-90 bridge, as discussed in Option 10 on p. 20 in the final report of the SR 520 Tolling Implementation Committee.
If one result is that some gap in funding remains for the 520 bridge, compared to choosing an “all lanes tolled” approach to the I-90 bridge, that is all the more reason to craft plans for tolling up to two lanes of the entire 520 corridor east of the bridge, leaving a free lane in each direction. The revenue would fill the hole. A similar approach of HOT, or express toll lanes aside free lanes probably also makes sense for the entire I-90 corridor because it connects with the I-405 corridor – which will likely have its own HOT lanes – and continuity is crucial.
Despite the attendant complexities, the 520 and I-90 decisions need to come sooner, not later, to keep the project on track and avoid added risk of cost increases that could accrue from funding uncertainties. Still, the plan should be crafted with an eye to the region’s considerable future challenges in funding highway mega-projects.
What projects? A WashDOT-led corridor tolling study has started for I-405/SR 167, examining the benefits of two variable-rate electronically tolled express lanes for most of the length of the whole corridor. The tolled lanes would help manage peak hour congestion and help fill a $2 billion funding gap for extending SR 167 to I-5. Another corridor tolling study, for SR 509, launched with a kick-off meeting in August; $1-$1.2 billion more is needed to extend 509 to I-5 south of Sea-Tac. A state study is underway for variable-rate electronic tolling to raise up to $400 million to build the planned deep-bore tunnel through downtown Seattle on SR 99. Both lanes in each direction of the tunnel would be tolled. About $2 billion of pavement repair and interchange work on I-5 in Seattle is unfunded and at least $1 billion of important safety-related work remains on deadly U.S. 2 in Snohomish County. The Cross-Base Highway in Pierce County is another important, largely unfunded project. Tolling needs to figure into most, if not all of these, though U.S. 2 is tricky because it narrows to one lane in each direction, heading east.
This isn’t all about studies in progress, and tough decisions yet to be made. The region’s commitment to electronic tolling is already demonstrated on the ground. A HOT lanes pilot project is underway on SR 167, and the new southbound span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is electronically tolled, though at set rates for each of several different user categories.
WashDOT gets it. In the department’s “Moving Seattle Forward” plan, express toll lanes are recommended from Tacoma to Everett on I-5. This would improve throughput of passengers and freight, and increase peak-hour speeds 30 percent, according to the agency. The plan also highlights the need for two express toll lanes in each direction in the I-405/SR 167 corridor, and says they would ensure peak-hour speeds of 45 mph 98 percent of the time versus 68 percent today.
When the 2007 “roads and transit” ballot measure failed, a major funding source for regional roads mega-projects went missing. Rather than simply slap together another ballot measure in a year or two when the economic recovery is complete, the region needs a plan to pay for roads mega-projects. Also needed is an entity – perhaps similar to the now defunct Regional Transportation Investment District, or RTID, that developed the roads funding proposal in ’07 – to develop the new plan. Costs and benefits of unified corridor tolling must be made plain, and accountability put front and center.
Faced with a pressing deadline, state lawmakers earlier this year chose the incremental approach for 520, authorizing tolls on its bridge only, not the whole corridor, and not the I-90 bridge as well. Yet it now seems inevitable they’ll be revisiting the issue of I-90 bridge tolling in order to close the large funding gap for the entire 520 bridge project. The biggest question is whether or not several more years must go by, with attendant rising costs in construction materials and labor, before the legislature takes decisive steps to facilitate a highway mega-project funding plan for metro Puget Sound.
“Time to Go ‘All In’ On Tolls,” Crosscut, 9/22/09
“Flexible Tolling: The Key To Solving Our Congestion,” Crosscut, 5/22/09
WashDOT tolling video