Any transportation revenue and spending package should lay a firm foundation in policy, making plain the overall direction in which the program is headed. What will we build, demolish, fix, retrofit and modernize, in order to make the transportation system as efficient as possible in meeting a broad set of needs.? And how will we pay for it?
In Parts one, two and three of this series, we laid out top priorities for investment. In this final installment, we’d like to focus on one important part of the money question: tolling.
If done with good judgment and modern approaches — a big if — tolling holds promise as a way to manage and lessen congestion on crowded highways — and generate some precious revenue in the process. The right approach to tolling is a fair and efficient way to allocate highway capacity when it is scarce. Scarcity is a congested road. Using scarce capacity more efficiently is also the key to an environmentally sensitive transportation policy, conserving the landscape from more pavement, saving fuel and minimizing polluting emissions.
Tolling harnesses principles rooted in the powerful dynamic of individual free choice and free markets. If you want to buy premium speed and reliability for an I-5 trip in high-demand (rush hour) times, you’ll pay for it, and the fluctuating price will make sure the roadway handles all the vehicles it can without traffic collapsing into bumper-to-bumper paralysis. We citizens, by responding to price as the tool to balance supply and demand, can help assure that the highway offers a reliable and speedy trip.
In recent years, the state legislature has shown plenty of interest in tolling for revenue potential. But transfixed by the siren song of revenue, lawmakers have ignored tolling’s potential for both good and bad outcomes when it comes to the efficiency of traffic flow and traffic patterns. So far every tolling plan lawmakers have adopted has been piecemeal: along part of the I-405 corridor. On SR 520. On I-90 to help pay for 520. On the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. For the Alaskan Way tunnel. The package currently being debated in Olympia would add a tolled lane, or lanes, along several miles of I-5 to help bankroll enhancements to SR 167 and SR 509, which may also see piecemeal tolled segments.
This habit of throwing up a little piece of tolling here and a little piece there is obsolete by at least a decade. It gives tolling a bad name, and deservedly so, by guaranteeing a hopeless tangle of policy, traffic and finance. This approach baffles and antagonizes citizens, frustrates intelligent roadway capacity management and shortchanges tolling’s potential as a financing tool.
That’s why it’s important for lawmakers to take action on a transportation package this year and to make sure that package contains a clear declaration that the state will move toward an intelligent, integrated, system-tolling program for the heavily traveled corridors in central Puget Sound. The plan should provide a general statement of what that system will eventually look like, and commit to supporting the program with dollars to assure adequate planning and a phased program of expenditure for implementation that will bring the system to fruition.
In other words, it’s time for the legislature to lay out a vision for system tolling.
Taking the tolling pledge
No tolling plan will work unless we navigate to a clear, overarching vision. That vision can’t just be about money. Revenue generation is helpful — and seductive. But as the legislature’s ill-conceived tolling scheme for the viaduct replacement tunnel project illustrates, putting tolls solely in service of revenue can push drivers unnecessarily onto alternate routes, which only makes traffic problems worse and, in the case of the SR 99 tunnel, would lead to underuse of an expensive new facility.
For more efficient roadway use, toll pricing must vary according to traffic conditions, helping to balance supply (roadway space) and demand (traffic). We want a system that keeps traffic moving and deters overcrowding and traffic jams on the tolled lanes.
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