Trans-poor-tation 4: A mighty toll order

Is a regional tolling system the answer to our transportation prayers? Credit: Photo: Flickr user Rusty Clark

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.  

We can’t stumble toward such a tolling plan or build it patchwork from a series of individual and unconnected piecemeal initiatives. The expensive new impact study local officials have insisted on for I-90 tolling — which will look at how I-90 tolling would affect everything else — is understandable. But it’s not what we need as a foundation for policy. What we need is to look at the system as a whole, then work from there to the right approach for each system segment, such as I-90.

Nor can we be stuck in the picture of future tolling painted  in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s 2008 Transportation 2040 report. That document called for a vast network of fully-tolled freeways and arterials, a plan that failed to demonstrate technical feasibility, neglected chaotic and inefficient traffic effects and generated insufficient evidence of achievable financial benefits. The report’s chief effect was to create the ideal straw man around which tolling opposition quickly coalesced.  

To develop a successful framework for a system tolling approach, the key will be heavy reliance on Express Toll Lanes on the most important highways. Here we can draw and improve on the experience of states that have moved forward on tolling most effectively and with increasing public support. Express Toll Lanes is the model successfully emerging in places like MiamiMinneapolis/St. PaulAtlanta, the Capital Beltway, the Bay AreaLos Angeles and Orange County in California and elsewhere. It is also the model already outlined for our own I-405

Why Express Toll Lanes, where a roadway operates with toll lanes and free lanes more or less side-by-side? The key is that there must be enough lanes so that the free lanes and the adjoining toll lanes offer users a choice, To pay the toll or not to pay the toll.  And because free-flowing tolled lanes actually carry more cars in an hour than backed up conventional lanes, the roadway gains overall efficiency over the familiar everyone-stuck-in-traffic rush-hour highways,  And better speed and higher reliability are there for those who need it.   

Staff at WSDOT, working together with representatives of other agencies, including transit agencies with much to gain from free-flowing tolled routes on the big highways, have already outlined how a system of Express Toll Lanes could work in the metro Seattle and central Puget Sound area. Highway capacity could be used more efficiently, including improved performance for transit, if integrated steps in the right places could be woven into time-of-day roadway pricing. Until now, this useful preliminary work has seen too little public exposure, discussion and debate and has not reached the full state of development to which that public attention could contribute. But that could change, once lawmakers finally declare that piecemeal tolling schemes are behind us and an integrated system tolling vision has to be pursued.

Express Toll Lanes and the future of I-5

Of course, there is a key connection between the system tolling vision and the future of I-5. An Express Toll Lane system on I-5 — probably extending from Marysville to Lakewood eventually — is the logical spine of a regional tolling network. Once we develop a plan for the spine, we can set to  work on the best ways to link up the ribs: I-90, SR 520, maybe the SR99 tunnel, and eventually SR 509 and connections to the secondary eastside spine of I-405 Express Toll Lanes where I-405 meets I-5 in Lynnwood and Tukwila. Smart planning should initially drive an implementation from the Snohomish County line to downtown Seattle. First target: the aggravated bottleneck and delay as many southbound drivers stay on I-5 to cross Lake Washington on I-90 and bypass that piecemeal 520 toll.

Development of a system-tolling plan and careful cultivation of broad public support for it also requires better analysis and more candor about how toll revenues should be used. The dollars generated won’t be enough to finance the entire transportation wish list, even for tolled areas and routes. Tolling’s benefit for transit will be significant, but indirect: By designing more efficient roadways that assure the speed and reliability of transit in shared premium speed lanes, system tolling will attract more transit riders, thus benefitting drivers and transit riders alike. In an Olympia that seems to have very little appetite for actually helping transit, at least this could be done since transit and non-transit users would benefit together. But don’t expect a regional Express Toll Lane system to significantly defray the overhead costs of transit bus drivers, fuel and bus operations.

We still have an opportunity, as lawmakers debate a 12-year package of new revenues and investments, to take a bold, comprehensive, forward-thinking policy statement on transportation’s future. The legislature can state the plan’s direction, declare its clear purpose and assure the means for start-up investment in system tolling across the next decade.

Without that clear, cohesive statement — that vision — we’ll be left with the disjointed proposal that is currently afloat in Olympia, a package that relies on a big gas tax increase and incidental, ad hoc tolling notions. (Exhibit A is the hastily-contrived Puget Sound Gateway Project, which features just the kind of piecemeal tolling notions we should be leaving behind, not locking into our future.)

We need a transportation package this year from Olympia that will sensibly carry us forward. A lot of work will be necessary to get there from what now seems to be on the drawing board. It’s work worth doing, if we want a strong transportation system. But it won’t happen without a public clamor to drown out the nearsighted, narrow goals that have, so far, made the proposal in Olympia their captive.

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