Getting rolling on road tolling
by Knute Berger
It was Edgar Allan Poe who wrote “tolling, tolling, tolling,/In that muffled monotone. …” This year, talk of road tolling and congestion pricing will increase above a whisper. With the defeat of Prop. 1 and big transportation infrastructure decisions to be made on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the 520 floating bridge, and with federal grant money a carrot for regions that embark on road pricing plans, the tolling of Puget Sound’s roads will begin to move from theory to active discussion and implementation. The Seattle Times story about 520 this morning offers evidence that the conversation is advancing. And while lawmakers tend to soft-pedal tolls to the public, there is widespread consensus in policy circles that tolls are the way to fund projects and control driving behavior. The Times reports:
Some previously taboo ideas about tolling will get a closer look. One scenario calls for charging tolls on the existing  bridge, to slash the interest costs to finance a new span. [State Treasurer Mike] Murphy has advocated tolling both the old 520 bridge and the Interstate 90 bridge, but lawmakers have been reluctant to do so.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he had not seen the governor’s proposal, but is willing to discuss tolling ideas. “I’m wanting to work in good faith with everybody, on the amount and timing,” he said.
On a related note, the New York Times notes that a preliminary study of tolling and congestion pricing options for Manhattan was released today. A copy of the report is available here [PDF]. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed last year an ambitious, London-style congestion pricing program for the city that would charge $8 to drive in Manhattan. The program would also involve a heavy investment in surveillance cameras to police the program. The state legislature refused to endorse the plan but, in order to keep a major federal transportation grant alive, agreed to study options. The report contains the pluses and minuses for four plans, including an analysis of Bloomberg’s original proposal, an alternative plan, plus other tolling and car-rationing options. The latter would limit the number of days drivers could bring their vehicles into the city to say four out of five workdays. It wouldn’t raise revenues like tolling, but it would limit congestion. The report is worth a look to see the various strategies that are in play for the U.S. city that is most aggressive about pursuing congestion pricing. And speaking of congestion pricing, I contacted the Puget Sound Regional Council this morning to find out when the full results of their “Traffic Choices” congestion pricing study will be released. Preliminary results were shared last year. The nearly $2 million study was one of the most extensive ever conducted in this country and looked at tolling all major highways and arterials in the Seattle metro area. The report is still being written, but staff says it should be done by the end of February. The study findings should help turn up the volume on road pricing rumblings. UPDATE: Today on KUOW’s “The Conversation,” Gov. Christine Gregoire was unequivocal about her determination to put tolls on highway 520: “The decision has been made….We have to toll it.” The questions left, she says, are how to implement it, for what duration, whether it will include variable pricing (tolls higher or lower depending up what time of day) and whether or not to also toll I-90.