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    A transportation layaway plan

    To replace the Highway 520 floating bridge, will the public support the idea of paying now, getting later?
    The line of battle between Seattle and the Eastside.

    The line of battle between Seattle and the Eastside. WSDOT

    Talk about audacity. Gov. Chris Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims, Mayor Greg Nickels, and others last week stood together to embrace a somewhat expected though still-startling idea: tolling on the 520 bridge.

    The gov says we need tolling on the crumbling old bridge to start banking bucks to pay for a new bridge. Tolling would provide about half of the $4 billion replacement cost.

    The Washington State Department of Transportation calls this "Pre-Completion Tolling." I call it a Transportation Layaway Plan.

    In the context of finances, it makes sense. By paying now, we bank enough money to avoid exorbitant tolls later.

    For months now, we've been hearing from my colleague, Knute Berger, and others that tolls are coming – a kind of a back to the future for 520, since tolls paid for the original bridge.

    And yet several aspects of the gov's proposal seem remarkable:

    • This plan is all about paying for a new 520, but tolling would likely be imposed on both 520 and the Interstate 90 bridge. Otherwise, a big share of 520 traffic would shift to I-90, worsening congestion there.
    • Tolling would begin as soon as next year. Pricing hasn't been announced, but how does $5 to $10 per roundtrip during rush hours feel?
    • I doubt the public has paid much attention to planners' talk about "congestion pricing," which is proposed in the new plan. Environmentalists support the concept as a means of "encouraging" the use of public transit and of reducing auto pollution. But what's the answer to the construction worker in the pickup truck who starts to believe he's been priced off a public road?
    • Another aspect of a layaway plan is you have reason to expect the seller to make good on his side of the deal. The seller delivers the whole enchilada. But to put it mildly, "on time, on budget" has not been a hallmark of our transportation planning.
    • This new "aggressive" approach? Patience, please. The new bridge would not open till 2018.

    As for the Alaskan Way Viaduct? Well, that used to be the most urgent need. We're still waiting for that press conference.

    O. Casey Corr is a Seattle writer who has worked for The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He now is employed at Seattle University as director of strategic communications. You can e-mail him at casey.corr@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Sun, Jan 13, 7:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    costs: "But what's the answer to the construction worker in the pickup truck who starts to believe he's been priced off a public road?"

    That he should pass the increased costs on to the general contractor that's employing him, no?

    I live in Seattle and do consulting on the Eastside. I already charge my clients a travel fee, so I'd just have to add on the toll. If it actually does work to reduce congestion, presumably I'd be spending less time in traffic and my productivity would go up, so it'd be a wash overall.

    And if my client decides to go with a consultant on the Eastside? Even better -- that's one less car off the bridge: mine.

    Posted Sun, Jan 13, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    My time is worth the money: I did the bridge commute for 9 years. Thankfully, I no longer have to, but if I did, I'd gladly pay a $10 toll for the privilege of a quick and uncongested drive home.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 5:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    All Well and Good: I'm a supporter of congestion pricing - and I suppose, as a resident of Pierce County my say on this matter is limited, though I guess the details of that are up for current debate.

    However some words of advice to my less savy neighbors to the north - one good element of a plan does not a success make. Sure, congestion pricing with revenues dedicated to the corridor where the monies are collected makes a lot of sense.

    That's not what's being proposed here - as such, given the record of King County based corporate welfare pimps, and their 'contractors' - almost without exception - you'd be pretty stupid to give these 'people' another dime.

    First and foremost, there is no design, just as there is none for the viaduct corridor.

    The benefits of congestion pricing are such that you still might find this worthwhile. If so I suggest sending the money down here where we have a variety of projects ready to go, motorized and non-motorized. Christine Gregoire and others have been floating the idea of removing the idea of sub-area equity (not unrelated to that of corridor dedication) safely assumable with the goal to divert money from the rest of the region to downtown and the eastside.

    Perhaps we should take a vote on that idea and divert the money instead to South King, Pierce, and Snohomish?

    What's good for the goose is good for the gander, no? You can always hope, but then again, some people never grow up.

    -Douglas Tooley
    LIncoln, Tacoma

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    What does 35 cents cost now?: When 520 was a toll bridge, we paid 35 cents for a single vehicle plus 1-2 riders. 3 or more was 10 cents -- and there was nothing more fun than paying for the car behind you for a dime.

    This was in the 70's. Please help with the inflation stats that tell me what 35 cents would be now? In return I'll tell one of those 10 cent stories.
    Lucy Mohl

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    Son of Prop 1 proponents see tolls as a cash cow: From: Tim Eyman, co-sponsor of ReduceCongestion.org, our initiative in 2008

    It's clear the Son of Prop 1 proponents view tolls as a cash cow that they can impose on anyone and use on anything. ReduceCongestion.org requires that if the Legislature imposes a toll, that revenue must be spent on that project and no other -- our initiative doesn't allow them to earn a profit on tolls. Under the initiative, State Auditor Brian Sonntag is empowered to monitor and track and "regularly report to the public" on the revenues and expenditures for such issues. Under our initiative, they can't impose a toll on I-90 to pay for 520 - if they did, it'd stop being a toll and become a tax (taxes can be spent on anything, tolls are used to pay for particular projects). With our initiative, these funds cannot be misused and the State Auditor will ensure that happens by regularly reporting to the public. Voters clearly want accountability and transparency.

    Did you catch this little jewel in today's Washington Post (01/14/2008):

    Some governors face big falloff in revenues
    In New Jersey, with a $3.5 billion shortfall and a crushing $32 billion debt, Gov. Jon Corzine has proposed drastically increasing the toll fees on the state's three toll roads and issuing up to $38 billion in bonds against future toll revenues. The money would be used to pay down the debt and make infrastructure improvements.

    -- END --

    Without ReduceCongestion.org's taxpayer protection provisions on tolls, what they're doing in New Jersey will happen in Washington, spending toll revenue to bail out the general fund when they overspend (which they always do) and other projects. Our initiative simply requires a toll to be a toll and stops it from morphing into a tax (which can be imposed on anyone to pay for anything).

    State Auditor Brian Sonntag's performance audit report said that if we use our existing resources more effectively (better utilization of carpool lanes, synchronize traffic lights on heavily-traveled arterials and roadside assistance), we can reduce traffic congestion 15-20%. Son of Prop 1 proponents say their plan will make things 'less bad' 20 or 30 years from now.

    We have an 11 month debate to decide who we trust most: State Auditor Brian Sonntag or the same people who put together Prop 1. ReduceCongestion.org provides voters with the chance to reduce traffic congestion using existing resources more effectively and without increasing the taxpayers' burden. Son of Prop 1 proponents offer business-as-usual that increases the taxpayers' burden.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    Roads for the Rich: Do we all live in a world where we can simply pass the costs upwards? The question was about the guy in a pickup who is a regular worker, who cannot afford ten bucks a shot, not a subcontractor who can bill upwards. For Pete's sake, MOST people are employees; they don't say to their employers, "I raise my work from twenty to twenty-five dollars an hour." Can we be less disingenuous here? These tolls will free up the traffic by taking the bridge away as an option for the ordinary worker. Of course, the people in Hunt's Point will drop their ten-spots into the bucket without a second thought. But the practical effect here is to open the roads for those people by forcing the less affluent off the road -- either into mass transit that the rich never look at or off the road entirely. This is an elitist proposal that is unworthy of Democrats; some elements of society HAVE to be available to everybody. Roads is one of those socially necessary elements.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    RE: What does 35 cents cost now?: 35 cents in 1970 would be (depending on which calculator you use) about 1.90 today.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    RE: costs: Frank, that's quite an elitist post. Do you really think that the vast majority of workers in this world can simply pass their costs along?

    Life is a whole lot more complicated when you have to consider people other than yourself.

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    Try The Traditonal Method: Do "they" want to build a new bridge, or use it as an excuse to fund other projects, and do some social engineering in the process?

    Are the problems of 21st century urban life so complex that we can't fund infrastructure the way it's always been done? Present the construction plan, sell bonds, slap on a reasonable toll when it's built, and when it's paid for, take the toll off. Or keep the toll on, but make it reasonable, and you'll always have maintenance funding and then some. I grew up in upstate NY, and the interstate highway and bridge tolls were NEVER burdensome.

    Another poster commented that she'd like to know what the inflation-adjusted equivalent of the 70's era tolls would be. The 70 cent toll which was removed in 1979 (after 16 years) is equivalent to $1.94 in 2006 dollars (the most current year available via http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/ ). Certainly makes the proposed tolls seem out of whack, doesn't it? Draw your own conclusions.

    The justification for putting tolls simultaneously on I-90 to discourage toll-avoiding traffic is a complete red herring. Tim Eyman is 100% right on this one. If a new 520 toll is reasonable, this problem will never materialize.

    As for the Governor's "Give us the money now and just trust us to use it properly down the road" proposal - forget it. That's like giving a teenage kid a bottle of booze and the keys to dad's car.

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: costs: So what does "Editor's Pick" mean? It looks as though the editor approves of a post that shows a mind utterly unaware that most people can't bill up or raise rates for their "clients." Does the editor really not see how the proposed tolls will affect real people? This is ridiculous. If Crosscut expects to reach a broad audience, then it has to show some awareness of its offputting elitism by avoiding "friendship groups" in its postings.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    Where's your initiative: Mr. Eyman, the link you provided (reducecongestion.org) switched me over to the Permanent Offense website, which doesn't contain a copy of the text of your initiative. When will the text be available?


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 1:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Transportation costs: Anyone read the sidebar article in the Vancouver Sun about the expansion of Vancouver's SkyTrain?:

    "The Evergreen line is expected to cost about $1.4 billion and could be finished as early as 2014....The UBC line will cost about $2.8 billion, and will be finished around 2020, Campbell said."

    Meanwhile in a July 15, 2007 AP article about Sound Transit's expansion of light rail to the north:

    "The newest cost estimate to extend Sound Transit's light-rail system beyond Seattle is seven billion dollars less than reported earlier....The previous estimate released last month said it would cost $37.9 billion to extend light rail north to Lynnwood in Snohomish County, east to Overlake near Redmond and south to Tacoma. Sound Transit now says some dollars were included twice in that estimate." The PI reports this completion might occur by 2027.

    Now it's possible that the Canadian dollar has so increased that their system actually does cost more than ours. That is if the Canadian dollar is worth about the same as the Euro and then some.

    What I'd like to know is why they are so smart as to start and complete a line in 6 years. Apparently this secret knowledge is also available to Portland where the MAX line to the airport was completed in half the time forecast. MAX went on the drawing boards in 1979 and in 1986 opened with 33 miles of track. Why is this taking so long in comparision to other systems. And don't say topography. Portland has a line running through a hill that has America's deepest rail station.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 2:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Choices: The construction worker in a pickup truck might appreciate reliably getting to the job site on time. Or back home in time to catch the kid's t-ball practice. The system we have now means he or she spends way too much time stuck in traffic.


    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    The numbers are insanely high: My wife works in Bellevue and we live in Seattle. I work in Seattle. I think of us as making a fairly good living. However, there is no way that we can afford $10 per trip. That is $400 a month and nearly $5000 a year! Even $5 each way is too high. She doesn't have a choice about when the office opens. She is required to be there by 8:30. Her office is not in dowtown Bellevue, so transit won't work. Whoever is behind "congestion pricing" clearly hates working people. Why should my wife have to give up a good job, with good benefits, that she happens to love so that rich people don't have to wait in traffic? Congestion pricing is ANTI-progressive. I was in complete support of tolls, maybe $2-3 dollars. You've lost me now. Screw it! No tolls under any circumstance.

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: costs: So...if enough of your Eastside clients decide to drop you in favor of a local consultant because you blythely pass along the cost of a toll rather than taking a less expensive vacation, at what point will you simply be out of business? Does your logic result in the optimum solution being your unemployment, at which time you go on food stamps meaning the taxpayers ultimately foot your bill?

    While I love the taste and performance characteristics of butter, when it gets to be $5 per pound, I'll be forced to consider the less satisfactory but more popularly priced spread. Econ 101.

    I'm a consultant too, but if my clients caught me sliding an increased cost 100% their way, they'd be pretty steamed. I either make some of the pain mine at the outset, or all of the pain will be mine as a consequence.

    Cliches won't build anything, let alone a new bridge.

    The Piper

    Posted Mon, Jan 14, 6:14 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: The numbers are insanely high: yeah, insane is the word.

    So the solution you propose is that the rest of the people of the State pay for your unfeasible project?

    If the costs of living in Seattle become unbearable then perhaps you should move.

    Either that, or get Bill Gates to pay for the new 520 Bridge. Heck, why not the starter Eastside rail line and a Commuter rail running from Renton to Bellevue, while we are at it.

    He does have the money, doesn't he?

    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    RE: The numbers are insanely high: You and your wife are making a conscious choice --- living in Seattle and working in Seattle and Bellevue.

    The population in the Puget Sound area is expected to continue to grow and grow --- an additional 52% by 2040. Without congestion relief, the time your wife (and the construction worker in the pickup truck, etc) spend on the road will increase and increase and increase. You say $400 per month is too much. How about an additional 20 or 30 hours per month on the road --- plus the additional fuel costs --- is that too much? Congestion relief is essential for your wife and the construction worker --- people who (presumably) cannot use public transportation for their jobs.

    How would you suggest that you pay for congestion relief? A higher gas tax? Higher property taxes? Higher sales taxes?

    A road is a scarce resource. The most efficient way to allocate that resource is by charging for it.

    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    those tolls: It's pretty frustrating reading these posts, I have to say. Youse guys start with the idea of your perfect bridge then back up to the crippling tolls to pay for it, most of you perfectly able to charge your "clients" for the new ten dollar tolls. I see no serious concern for the ordinary working people who need to cross the bridges. The first job OUGHT to be to figure out a toll that is bearable by people earning minimum level wages, then work up to the bridge you can buy from that point. I would say that most people could factor in the cost of a dollar (so they could shop at BelSquare instead of Northgate), but much more than that would be social engineering to force regular people off the bridges so the rich could ride freely and in comfort. I don't believe in Roads for the Rich, but it looks as though Crosscut and its friends do.


    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 5:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    WHAT WILL HAPPEN: If the original $.35 toll translates to $1.94 in 2008 then, by the time the equipment is installed in 2009 or 2010 it would be $2.00. Let me make a guess: daily commuters will get a monthly pass that will work out to about $4.00 a day (20 working days, $80). Others, the impulse travelers, will pay more.

    Let me also guess: even $2.00 toll per crossing will reduce traffic by 15%. Eyes will open. The future will become clear. The tragedy of the commons will be a lot less tragic.

    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: WHAT WILL HAPPEN: I agree with you here. The 520 tolling plan shows that traffic is reduced relative to an untolled bridge, which means that people in general will get where they want to go quicker. In a lot of cases, even for those with lesser incomes, this will be a net win. If you drive a delivery truck or make sales calls, you'll be able to be more productive, and won't sit in traffic wasting (and paying for) gas. The Tragedy of the Commons describes the current situation quite well. I think this is a net win for all classes of income. Certainly, there will be special rates for special cases, not unlike the income tax. Probably we'll have special discounts for retired folks, handicapped folks, low-income folks, folks who cross frequently, car pools, transit, etc. I can see also where some companies may subsidize some of the tolling expense.

    There is certainly a threshold where the toll becomes punitive and not simply a disincentive for those with lower incomes. If you use the bridge to commute to work and back, and work 50 weeks a year, that's 50 wks X 5 days X 2 trips = 500 trips a year. So a $2.00/trip fee is $1000 a year. If you're making $40K a year in a lower income job, that's 2.5% of your income. If you're up at $6 a trip, that's $3000 and 7.5% of your income, which is a big deal, particularly if you tack on the cost of gas and the car to go along the toll.

    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 11:52 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: those tolls: I'm a big advocate of tolls, but I'm an even bigger fan of your view of costs. In politics they call bills with lots of special interest legislation in them "Christmas Trees" because of all the "ornaments" of pork attached as riders to big appropriations. Well the 520 Bridge is a huge Christmas Tree molded out of lard.

    First, you've got the prevailing wage, which artificially jacks up all union wages. I respect union workers and am willing to pay them for appropriately. But please compete. And find room for lesser paid workers in big projects, such as hard-working legal Hispanic workers willing to work at one third the cost.

    Second, there will be a big fight to prevent starting the toll early. This would save hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service. About 8% of the current WSDOT budget goes to debt service, which just means that taxpayers get 8% less for their dollar.

    Third, part of the Christmas tree larding process is building lids over the freeway for communities like Hunts Point and Evergreen Point and Yarrow Point. We might as well waste billions building a bridge to Point No Point.

    Fourth, we'll spend maybe 15-30% of our transportation dollars on uncoordinated environmental studies that will reveal stuff we already know, and that could have been done for 5% of the project cost. By the way 30% of $4 billion is $1.2 billion in environmental studies. You can buy a lot of salmon and salmon habitat for $1.2 billion. Or even buy a whole new 520 bridge, as we'll see below.

    Fifth, while the DOT pats itself on the back for "deferring" $400M in sales tax on transportation expenditures, the right thing for the State to do is to reimburse DOT with all sales tax expense. As it is now, we tax our own tax expenditures on transportation, so that the 8.5% sales tax on project purchases goes to the General Fund where it can be used to subsidize anything, sometimes even transportation.

    Sixth, for completeness, let's not forget the 1% Waste for Art on all construction projects.

    Seventh, the new bridge appears to have been designed by Croesus. The current 520 Bridge was finished in 1963, Half a billion to keep it going for another 20 years would be a good investment. But no, we have to have a six-lane bridge with wide shoulders and bicycle lanes! If we figure that shoulders and bicycle lanes take up the equivalent of two general purpose lanes, then we're literally building a bridge with 33% more lane capacity than necessary. The cost per cyclist on the bridge is likely to be about $10,000 a trip for the life of the bridge. And for the cost of shoulders, I suspect we could easily subsidize 24-hour emergency helicopter car removal service. If we build less of a monstrosity, it'll cost less.

    The FOUR BILLION DOLLAR price tag for the bridge is a sad joke. We could easily build the thing for ONE BILLION DOLLARS. How do I get that number? Build a 520 bridge parallel to the existing bridge (ala the Tacoma Narrows). Don't demolish the existing bridge and save hundreds of millions. Use THE SAME PROVEN DESIGN SPECS as were used for the current bridge, which for 45 years has survived several earthquakes and multiple wind storms. The current bridge cost way less than one billion. According to WSDOT, they "opened the Evergreen Point and Portage Bay Bridges to drivers on August 28, 1963. The bridges took three years to complete and cost ... a total of $21 million (in 1961 dollars) to build."

    A dollar then is worth roughly ten now. So WSDOT built a 4-lane bridge for $210M. Even if we double the cost to pay for the proposed 6-lane bridge, we get only $410M. Yet, WSDOT estimates the cost of the proposed bridge at TEN TIMES the inflation-adjusted $410M cost of the current bridge. Until WSDOT can justify ten times the cost, I wouldn't recommend handing them a penny, toll or no toll.

    Posted Wed, Jan 16, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    Bold: Is anybody else as confused by all this as I am?

    As an "old" Seattle native I seem to remember there was a law that bridges and other transportation projects could be tolled only until they were paid for. When did that go away?

    Can the State put a toll on something paid for by the Federal Governmentat least in part? If we do, will a percentage have to be forwarded back until such money amounts to what they spent?

    I am old enough to remember the tolls on the 'floating bridge" before there was anything else. I assume "I-90" to mean it is an interstate highway. What would have to be done to put a toll on a bridge on an Interstate highway that was paid for more years ago that most people in the area have been alive?

    Posted Thu, Jan 17, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    RE: Bold: The 520 bridge has been paid for, it has outlived its useful life and needs to be replaced. Tolls will pay for half of the replacement.

    The orgininal I-90 bridge sank. It was replaced with federal funds. It needs maintainance and tolls can help pay for that. It is also clated for improvements and that money can come from tolls.

    A lot has changed. Most importantly, traffic congestion has changed. There's a lot more of it. Another thing that has changed is that we've developed all around our roads, making it far less possible and far more expensive to expand them.

    Surely a toll to build things that need replacing, that helps pay for improvements, and helps assure a more reliable commute might be considered a somewhat reasonable idea, even if it is a break from the past.

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