It really will toll for thee
by Knute Berger
The Highway 520 floating bridge Credit: WSDOT
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.
The bigger concern is simply implementing a system that works and doesn't create problems for a cranky public that will likely be asked to swallow a major increase in transportation taxes. A ten cent per gallon increase (over five years) and a higher Motor Vehicles Excise Tax, among other increases, has just been proposed by the state House Transportation chair. Gov. Jay Inslee says that proposal will produce a "robust conversation." No doubt.
But that tax package won't replace tolls or fix problems related to them, such as the toll rate through Seattle's new deep-bore tunnel, which may have to be set too low to raise the funds necessary to help pay for that expensive project. The bottom line is that state transportation planners seem to think that we need to pay higher gas taxes so that we can build more roads and bridges that we can then toll so that we can pay to drive on them. Forget pay to play, when it comes to driving you pay to pay.
We seem to be locking into a system that punishes people for driving yet demands that they pay more and more for new and bigger highways. The Toll Auditor's job won't be able to sort that out, but they will get to deal with the fallout.