Tunnel tolls will likely be no more than $1.25 for cars

Big Bertha: boring no more Credit: WSDOT

Digging is stalled on the Highway 99 Tunnel project, but tolling recommendations for the unfinished underground roadway moved forward on Wednesday.

An advisory committee put the final touches on a report that suggests base toll rates of $1 and peak rates of $1.25. Peak times are weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Under the proposed plan, rates would rise by 1.3 percent each year. The tolls would generate an estimated $1.085 billion in gross revenue over 30 years.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Managementwill forward their recommendations to a host of officials and government bodies. Those include the governor, Legislature, Federal Highway Administration, Washington State Department of Transportation, the mayor of Seattle and the Seattle City Council. The Washington State Transportation Commission is ultimately responsible for setting toll prices.

The committee, which currently has 13 members, examined eight tolling scenarios with rates ranging from as low as $0.45 to as high as $4. 

The rates were designed with an eye toward limiting the number of drivers avoid the tunnel to dodge the toll. Based on 2017 traffic projections, the amount of vehicles diverted from the tunnel as result of the charge will be 20 percent at peak times and 38 percent at off-peak times. If the tunnel were un-tolled the committee report predicts that about 22,100 vehicles would pass through it during the afternoon peak period. This means that with the $1.25 toll in place, 3,500 of those vehicles will be diverted onto city streets or Interstate 5.

“We are wary of the potential for unintended impacts from diversion on the community,” the committee's co-chairs wrote in the report.

Without increased transit service along the Highway 99 corridor, the committee warns that diverted traffic would “result in increased traffic volumes in downtown Seattle and particularly near the tunnel portals, which would lead to delays.” In addition to transit, the report says “adaptive” signals that adjust timing based on traffic volumes, separated cycle tracks and electronic signs could help decrease congestion. 

The recommendations also include higher rates for trucks. Medium trucks would pay about $3.13 at peak times and $2.50 at off-peak times. Large trucks would pay $3.50 peak and about $4.38 off-peak prices.

Over a 30-year timespan, the committee assumes $350 million of toll revenue will be used for toll collection costs and $200 million will help pay for tunnel construction. The committee estimates that another $200 million to $225 million will be needed to cover financing costs for the construction and that $160 million would pay for tunnel operations and maintenance. These expenses leave about $150 million to $175 million of the total revenue, or $5 million to $6 million per year, to fund transit improvements.

Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Maud Daudon and Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci co-chaired the committee. Other members included Sung Yang, chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine, Kurt Beckett, deputy CEO for the Port of Seattle, and local pedestrian advocate Peg Staeheli. The committee has worked on the recommendations since December 2011.

The Highway 99 tunnel will run from Sodo to South Lake Union and has been scheduled to be open for traffic in December 2015. But the machine digging the tunnel currently has a damaged bearing seal and has been stopped beneath Pioneer Square for over two months. WSDOT says they’re waiting for the project’s contractor to provide an updated estimate on when the project will be completed.

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