Blog State Treasurer: “Very Difficult” To Fund 520 Bridge Without I-90 Tolls

A committee hearing is schedule today for a bill (HB2211) introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives to effectively exclude the Interstate 90 bridge from an east-west bridge corridor tolling plan that would help fund replacement of the dangerously windstorm-prone and earthquake-prone parallel State Route 520 Bridge. The bridge replacement is estimated by the state to cost between $4.6 and $6.6 billion, as the Seattle Times has reported. Both the I-90 and SR 520 bridges connect Seattle with major Eastside job centers and will have to shoulder more traffic in coming years as population and employment grow, even if transit and vehicle trip reduction gain market share. Dropping I-90 from the corridor tolling plan is something with which the state treasurer and a key Senate legislator who has introduced a regional corridors bill, beg to differ. More from today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The Senate measure (SB549) would create a regional transportation corridor authority in King County that, with voter approval, could impose tolls to finance improvements on SR 520…and I-90. It would permit tolling of both Lake Washington bridges, something (sponsor State Sen. Ed) Murray thinks is needed if enough money is to be raised to finance the 520 Bridge alone. He said world experience shows traffic will avoid tolls on a bridge if there’s another nontolled route nearby….Murray said the two bridges are really managed together as facilities that both move people and goods across the lake. “They work together, because traffic on one helps traffic on the other,” he said. “You can’t solve problems on one without the other.”
Former State Treasurer Mike Murphy also said both bridges needed to be tolled in order to finance a new 520 Bridge, and once said he wouldn’t sell new bridge bonds unless there were tolls on both spans. Murphy’s successor, Jim McIntire, hasn’t gone that far but is helping lawmakers analyze the consequences of new tolls. Through a spokesman Wednesday, McIntire agreed it “would be very difficult to finance a new (520) Bridge without placing tolls on both I-90 and 520.”…..Murray also thinks the tolls could help finance corridor bus service, which is under pressure in King County as supporting sales taxes decline. The county has proposed a car-tab tax to help it support new bus service.

The final report to the legislature from the SR 520 tolling implementation committee noted that tolling 520 alone could raise no more than $1.5 billion toward replacement of the bridge while tolling both bridges could raise as much as a billion more.
Never mind Everett Dirksen’s alleged remark. A billion is real money. The user fees would be well calibrated and reasonable. Final rates must be approved by the state transportation commission, but the committee summarized a variety of scenarios it studied. One-way rates would be $1.05 to $2.75 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $1-$2.55 from 7 to 10 p.m.; 0 to 95 cents overnight; and 80 cents to $1.60 on weekends. Bridge passage would carry no toll for transit passengers at any time, or for ride-sharing vehicles of three or more passengers (or perhaps two or more, depending on what legislation is ultimately passed). The real kicker price-wise would be for peak-hour solo drivers, who’d pay $2.15-$4.25 from 5 to 9 a.m. and $2.80-$5.35 from 3-7 p.m. Rates rise as real-time road use does, to keep traffic flowing at 45 mph or more. If a final scenario within the range of those studied by the committee were adopted, then peak-hour solo drivers using the bridges would have to decide if as much as $9.60 a day to guarantee quick passage is worth the cost or not. No costs if ride-sharing, using transit, or tele-working. Lower costs if traveling off-peak.
There’s no free ride anymore. The per-gallon gas tax won’t be raised much, and isn’t buying much anymore, anyhow. User fees are an important piece of the puzzle in surface transportation funding and shouldn’t be applied in isolation in a major metro region such as Puget Sound.
King County Metro Reform
Other revenue measures must be considered as well, to help fund transit operators – particularly bus operators, who’ve been hit by a double-whammy of increased demand but plummeting revenues from sales taxes. At the same time, bus operators, particularly King County Metro, will need to: winnow service aggressively to routes and hours which have the highest percentage of seats filled; seriously consider far stiffer fare hikes than recently announced; focus more on express routes rather than “milk run” locals; and develop a plan to fund important amenities which improve the rider experience, such as mandatory pre-boarding pay kiosks, dual ground-level entries/exits, and on-board wireless Internet service (for a premium monthly fee). Last the region checked, in 2006, scheduled transit’s share of daily trips was four percent (second paragraph of p. ES-6, here). That figure likely rose in the last two years but service funding difficulties now threaten continued gains in transit market share. Despite the current tight economy, we’d better figure ways to help our region’s varied bus fleet operators adapt and improve for the long term. That must go hand in hand with funding crucial corridor management and infrastructure replacement plans that include time-variable electronic tolling.