Blog State Rep. Carlyle: New Era Of Transpo Funding, Strategy Looms

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36th) makes some key points about the future of state and regional transportation funding in a Ballard News-Tribune op-ed.
After stressing funding shortfalls facing King County Metro’s bus service and declining gas tax revenues for road projects, Carlyle explores several important macro-level policy options for funding improved mobility.

…the long-term, big picture is important and we can’t let the battles over the tunnel, 520 bridge and other mega projects be a conversation killer about our broader structural challenges. Several ideas are on the front burner. Tolling is making a comeback, as evidenced by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and soon on the 520 bridge. It makes sense for the people who use facilities the most to pay a greater share of the construction and maintenance costs for a specific facility or geographic area….comprehensive regional tolling – with e-tags and other solutions to help make it easy logistically – makes good economic sense so long as we have a real action plan….
Another, if controversial, idea is charging according to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), tracked by a transponder. This would take into account actual road usage, whether or not a vehicle uses gasoline, electricity or something else. It also opens up some interesting new policy ideas such as integrating car insurance, parking (no more parking meters!), tolls, etc., into one system that is able to charge drivers accordingly and accurately. Obviously, a concern about privacy is one major obstacle to this idea, so we’ll have to continue looking at innovative ways to address this very legitimate concern…..
A third option is the car-tab fee model and using the funds for direct transportation services so the money doesn’t disappear into the institutional bureaucracy of government but rather goes for real services on the ground.

Kudos to Rep. Carlyle for highlighting in a community forum the need to develop long-term surface transportation funding strategies. Regional (electronic, time-variable) tolling and further consideration of a vehicle mileage tax – along with a local-option motor vehicle excise tax applied at annual license renewal time – are all important options that our Cascadia Center and others have advocated.
More than that, Carlyle’s commentary is especially timely.

Even as the state and region grapple with mega-projects in isolated succession, a new approach is becoming evident in Olympia. In the state transportation budget bill approved earlier this year, the legislature authorized the Washington Department of Transportation to do several tolling studies, three of which would look at “value pricing” or variable-rate electronic tolling on the highway corridors of I-405, SR 167 and SR 509. (The I-405 and SR 167 studies have been merged into WSDOT’s Eastside Corridor Tolling Study, which is already underway. More information here, including upcoming meeting dates and opportunities for public input.)
SR 167 and SR 509 could see some or perhaps all lanes tolled to help pay for important extensions, while I-405 could be in line for two express toll lanes in each direction. Another study will help evaluate whether to also toll the I-205 bridge between Washington and Oregon along with the planned new I-5 bridge. In addition, the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee is conducting a new and more refined study of future transportation funding strategies, including the vehicle mileage tax.
The changing landscape may also necessitate a fresh conversation about a thorny issue. As Rep. Carlyle, the House’s Assistant Majority Whip, puts it:

A final issue is naturally one of governance. Should we create a mega transportation agency (and inevitably, bureaucracy)?

Yes, we should. It would make a lot more sense than dividing the planning, prioritizing and funding between the state, and a myriad of transit agencies, and regional and local entities. The end result would be more robust funding, better inter-modal transit and more predictable travel times on the region’s streets and highways.
I’ll give the final word here to Rep. Carlyle, who had some additional and very apropos thoughts in his own blog post about his transportation op-ed.

On a larger level, I feel strongly that our fundamental challenge today isn’t left versus right, progressive versus conservative…it is those who are willing to tackle bold systems issues and challenges versus those who feel paralyzed by the institutional bureaucracy of government. It is, at the risk of making you snicker, about hope versus fear; courage versus timid approaches; bold thinking versus modest excuses.
We need to have the courageous honesty to acknowledge that many of our systems like how we fund transportation do not work well; we are an entrepreneurial city and state with innovation and creativity in the private sector. Unfortunately, that entrepreneurial spirit does not frequently extend to the public sector. We can be so much more than what we’ve become.

Flexible Tolling: The Key to Solving Our Congestion,” Crosscut, 4/1/09
What Is It About Mileage Taxes Obama Doesn’t Understand?” Crosscut, 3/5/09
Managing, Planning and Funding Transportation,” Cascadia Center
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle’s blog