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It really will toll for thee

This whole tolling thing is pretty new to Washington. The state DOT is looking for a "Tolling Auditor" who can show us how to it right.
Old-fashioned tolling booths would not come back, though the revenues would.

Old-fashioned tolling booths would not come back, though the revenues would.

Policy makers have long decided that it is necessary and wise to toll more Washington state roads and bridges. The 520 Bridge is breaking new ground by being tolled before being finished; the post-Alaskan Way Viaduct downtown tunnel will be tolled; the new Narrows bridge came with a toll; plans are afoot to toll I-90, another scheme which could well charge drivers for improvements to a highway other than the one you're driving on. A big change in tolling strategies in the state is to dump the old "pay the toll until the bridge is paid for" model and put in place permanent tolling systems, aided by advanced technologies.

Evidence for the state's tolling ambitions can be found in an employment ad listing posted by the Washington Department of Transportation. The agency is seeking to hire an "Internal Tolling Auditor." The full time, permanent job would pay somewhere between $55,000 and $72,000 per year. The toll auditor's office at WSDOT "works to help management evaluate and improve internal controls, risk management, and the internal governance processes." In other words, the Tolling Auditor keeps the system clean, accountable, and on track, and keeps any private vendors under control.

But tolling is relatively new to Washington, certainly on the scale that WSDOT envisions. "While tolling is a prominent part of transportation funding on the East Coast and in Europe, it is relatively new on the West Coast, especially in Washington State," WSDOT says. But it will soon be more familiar if WSDOT has its way. "WSDOT is planning to significantly expand its Tolling Program to other roads such as the AWV Tunnel, I-405 Express Toll Lanes, and the Columbia River Crossing. As tolling expands in Washington State, so too will the need for experienced audit professionals to advise [WSDOT] management by independently planning, conducting, and managing accountability, financial and compliance audit engagements."

In other words, anybody out there know how to do this the right way?

WSDOT anticipates a difficult road ahead for its tolling professionals. They have already come under criticism for problems in implementing the new 520 tolls and penalty system. Many people are concerned about the roll rate that will be required to make the downtown tunnel pencil out. There were problems will the electronic billing system on the Narrows as well. And some of the residents of Mercer Island are in rebellion against the whole idea of proposed I-90 tolls, at least for the folks who live on The Rock. In short, the new auditor will have the people breathing down his or her neck, and there is lots that can go wrong.

To it credit, WSDOT wants to be upfront about that. Being a state Internal Toll Auditor will be no drive in the park. (Oh, by the way, some have suggested tolling the boulevard through the Washington Park Arboretum too). Here's how the help-wanted ad describes what will be required:

"This position plays an important role in conducting or overseeing the risk-based internal audits of the Tolling Program and advises management of the impacts of internal control weaknesses and noncompliance and recommends alternative actions. Not just anyone can do this job. In the spirit of full disclosure, WSDOT auditors are tasked with helping to build and maintain an internal control system that demonstrates accountability to a somewhat skeptical public. This requires hard work, travel, acute attention to detail, innovation, and tenacity."

So what we need is a smart bean-counter with enough communications and political skills to handle all the crap that will get thrown their way. In the spirit of full disclosure, don't say you weren't warned.

Tolling has had its problems in the past. What little tolling has been done on bridges in the Puget Sound region has not been entirely without scandal. Back in 1975, toll-takers on the Evergreen Point Bridge (520) were filmed embezzling the tolls paid in cash by Lake Washington commuters. Toll-takers took half-price tickets and swapped them for the full-price tolls paid by drivers using cash. Half of every cash toll went into the toll-takers' pockets. The state auditor determined nearly $300,000 had been stolen over five years, in nickels, dimes and quarters. Seven employees were fired and several went to jail. It was the largest state fraud uncovered in its time.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 6:46 a.m. Inappropriate

The public has every right to be skeptical of this new tax on travel.
Tolling has show to be a very inefficient way to collect taxes. So much of the tolls collected get diverted back to the contractors to run the system, WSDOT to keep it running, equipment to measure things, and the courts and collection agencies to chase the offenders. Scofflaws will be tracked down, and those that can't will be written off as a loss.
How much profit (usable revenue to build and fix the roads) has HWY 167 generated compared to that collected?
How about the Narrows or 520, or the planned tax on the Deep Bore Tunnel?
You'll cry when you find out the answer, compared to conventional ways to collect taxes.

007

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Mic, I looked at the WSDOT financials for HOT lanes
http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/84920824-C593-44A9-989B-4D469259F6EE/0/167HOTLanesFinancialStatementFY13Q2.pdf

and it seems pretty reasonable to me. In the latest report, YTD revenue is about $567K and expenses about $390K. For HOT lanes, what would be interesting is to know how it scales (I didn't research any other cities).

Tacoma narrows is even better: $33M revenue, $6M expenses:
http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/2B1A0FB8-9B4E-48E1-B585-196EDD9D0363/0/TNBFinancialStatementFY13Q2.pdf

About a third of that is for operating a toll booth, which 520 doesn't have and the SR99 tunnel won't have.

I did not look at statements for 520 as I think it is too new to be meaninful.

Regarding HOT tolling, I think it's very different from bridge tolling. For the latter, there's only one point requiring maintenance and relatively little need for enforcement. So, economy of scale should apply. That probably doesn't apply so much for HOT lanes.

pragmatic

Posted Tue, Feb 26, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

On the HOT lanes, if you look at the footnotes, you'll see $170,000 in expenses were not counted against the revenue, just about wiping it all out to zero gain.
I'm left to wonder what creative accounting will take place to shield the Toll Program from not looking too bad. The last time I looked at the 520 projection, about 30% of the Tolls went for operations. I suspect a keen auditor will find lots more - now whether they keep it buried is another matter.
After Tolling is thoroughly entrenched in our daily travel on many more roads, the kid gloves can come off.

007

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

There have been several bridges in WA state that were tolled. The tolls paid for the bridges, so the tolls were eliminated.

Among the bridges that were tolled in WA state:

I-5 bridge over the Columbia River;
Bridge over the Columbia River at Longview;
Bridge over the Columbia River at Astoria (in photo with this article);
520 floating bridge when it was new, and now again;
New Tacoma Narrows Bridge (don't know if the original bridge was tolled, or not).

So, tolling is not so new to WA state. It's just that most of the bridges that were tolled have been paid for, so the tolls were removed a long time ago.

Lincoln

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate



Typical! Slap on tolls, then figure out how to do it right. Ready-fire-aim, etc.

This kind of band-aiding by seeking revenues from specific user-groups within the populace (e.g. more parks admissions levies, anyone?) will continue until we get realistic by instituting a progressive state income tax and reducing the sales tax rates that currently leechthe already anemic working poor.

Charlton2

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Knute. This toll auditor job positing is simply to re-fill a position after the last person moved to a different job. There has been an internal toll auditor for some time. Every toll agency uses auditors.

Rita

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Skeptical? Oh, yes indeed! Looks like our lovely state government has plans to toll every single street and road eventually, plus we will see further gas tax increases. And all because they are paying their management levels obscene salaries, spending money based on projections that always turn out to be far below actual costs, and because they keep choosing to spend our money on things we don't want, or to serve things we don't want. We should fight this tooth and nail or pretty soon we'll just be having our paychecks direct deposited to government.

mspat

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 7:01 p.m. Inappropriate

We have to pay for transportation somehow. With car tabs being severely limited by the so called $30 tab law, more efficient vehicles and inflation eroding the gas tax, what other options are there than to toll the roads and have users pay for them? Sure tolling is regressive, but other options have been taken off the table. If you want Washington to have a transportation network then tell me how you will pay for it.

DavidA

Posted Tue, Feb 26, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Sure tolling is regressive . . ..

Huh? In revenue-raising circles, the term "regressive" describes a general tax that hits those with the least economic means the hardest. Sales taxes are most regressive, and car tab taxes also fit the description. In contrast, an income tax (even a flat rate one) is progressive.

Road tolls are a user fee, not a general tax. The term "regressive" doesn't apply to them.

crossrip

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

A user fee only if the toll proceeds are used for the road or bridge itself. You "progressives" are such liars. You want to toll the roads and bridges not as user fees, but for general taxation purposes, and to punish drivers. And then, in true "progressive" style, you will lie about what you're doing.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 9:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Tolling is bad; red light and speed cameras are downright evil. The National Motorist Association tracks all the crime and corruption associated with the camera contractors and local governments. Shaving yellow light times, burying tickets racked up by government vehicles, taking bribes, and other shenanigans have been exposed and highlight the money grubbing real reason for the cameras. Tolls will also be abused and used to reward contractors, advertising agencies, and open the door for sham, faux, bogus, special exempt vehicles. It's all under the umbrella agenda called 'Autophobia'.

animalal

Posted Mon, Feb 25, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"This whole tolling thing is pretty new to Washington. The state DOT is looking for a "Tolling Auditor" who can show us how to do it right."

In the real world, wouldn't you hire someone to show you how to do it BEFORE you committed BILLIONS of tax payer's dollars to launch tolling to pay for parks and lids over 520 and created the ORCA club, and gouged a limited capacity tunnel under the waterfront? At the very least wouldn't you try and have some inkling what it all is going to cost?

Isn't this supposed to be about transportation, as in moving things from one place to the other? If it's really about allocating billions for beautification and landscaping and providing amenities for downtown property then let the Parks Department do it.

The people responsible for this should at least be able to pass some kind of "do no harm" test. The money spent on this comedy takes away from neighborhood projects, public safety, and social services for the poor, the homeless and the elderly.

jmrolls

Posted Tue, Feb 26, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

No kidding ...

Posted Tue, Feb 26, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Why is it only Western WA paying tolls? We collect more tax dollars in Western WA than we get back from the state in spending. We are subsidizing Eastern WA. Keep those dollars here and pay for the roads or toll all bridges in Eastern WA too.

Rhonwyn

Posted Tue, Feb 26, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

A $40 late fee on a charge that averages between $3 - $7 is ummm ... highway robbery.

Posted Wed, Feb 27, 5:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Your fines will be doubled for excessive whining, plus this latest outburst gets you 3 minutes in the penalty box.
"Very Interesting"

007

Posted Wed, Feb 27, 1:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Lets mention late fees,,,, if you don't pay a toll you get fined and cannot renew your license or your tabs until the late fee is paid, OK.

If DOT keeps building roads and bridges that we citizens can't afford in the first place, who pays the late fees? the re-do's? the delays? the mistakes? the liability?

The system is backwards and broken. Too many overpaid bureaucrats making stupid irresponsible decisions on behalf of all of us, continually.

salmonjim

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't have any problem tolling a bridge to pay for that bridge. But that's not what the Democrats want to do. They want to impose tolls as genreal taxes, and to punish drivers.

NotFan

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