1. Highway tolls are inevitable in metro Puget Sound

King County Executive Ron Sims has his own inconvenient truth to convey: Tolls are inevitable on all major Seattle-area freeways. And he already has a plan for us to discuss.
Crosscut archive image.
King County Executive Ron Sims has his own inconvenient truth to convey: Tolls are inevitable on all major Seattle-area freeways. And he already has a plan for us to discuss.

Copyright © 2007 by Crosscut Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles that comprise a Crosscut special report, No Exit: Pay Toll Ahead. Comments are disabled on this article. You can comment on the whole series here. A report created at the direction of King County Executive Ron Sims recommends turning all major freeways and limited access highways in metropolitan Puget Sound into toll roads. Only buses and emergency vehicles would not have to pay. Called "transportation improvement fees," or TIFs, these round-the-clock tolls, collected electronically, would generate $24 billion over 20 years and pay for many of the region's roadway and mass-transit needs, from replacement of the Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington to increased bus and light-rail services. Tolling, the report says, by its very existence should reduce congestion on these highways by 15 percent to 20 percent. The March 5 draft report has not been released to the public, but a copy was obtained by Crosscut. Titled Destination 2030 – Taking an Alternative Route (1.1 MB PDF), the principal authors are Jack Opiola, a London consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, and Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. They recommend charging a transportation improvement fee (TIF) on these highways:

  • Interstate 5 from Everett or Marysville in Snohomish County to Lakewood in Pierce County, south of Tacoma.
  • State Highway 520 from Seattle across the Evergreen Point Bridge to Redmond.
  • All of Interstate 405.
  • Interstate 90 as far east as Issaquah.
  • State Highway 509 from south Seattle to Burien.
  • State Highway 599 from Tukwila to the Duwamish industrial area in Seattle.
  • State Highway 167 from Auburn to Renton.
  • State Highway 518 from Burien to Tukwila.
  • A portion of state Highway 99 along Seattle's waterfront.
The report's authors emphasize that their recommendations are meant to be starting points for regional discussion and state that specifics outlined in the document can of course be changed or modified as public sentiment and other factors enter the debate. That said, to achieve the dual benefits of less traffic congestion and enough money to pay for necessary transportation improvements, the report suggests charging every car and light truck $2 for a typical morning commute. That same trip, at 3 a.m., would cost but $1. However, someone driving from Tacoma to Everett at the height of the afternoon commute would pay $8, the maximum for any single trip. Fees for large trucks would be double those prices. If all of this sounds familiar, it might be because King County, the Puget Sound Regional Council, and state officials last week announced that the Seattle area is a finalist for federal money to experiment with electronically collected tolls and more effective bus service on Highway 520 between Seattle and Redmond. That project would help pay for replacing the floating 520 bridge, which is aging and would be vulnerable in a severe storm, not to mention the fact it's often gridlocked on weekdays. The grant sought for 520 is but a slice of Sims' bigger vision of imposing tolls on all of the metropolitan area's freeways. Meanwhile, in November voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties will be asked to create a Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID). The RTID ballot measure will ask the public to assess itself $14.5 billion to fund improvements to highways and mass transit (4.5 MB PDF). The RTID vote is unrelated to the tolling proposed by the King County executive – except that its insufficiency inspired Sims to sanction the tolling report. Co-author Hallenbeck, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW, says it's clear that the $14.5 billion generated by the RTID – assuming it's approved – even in combination with other taxes won't come close to solving the Metro area's transportation mess. There are $30 billion of identified transportation needs in the three-county area, and highway planners say it would take $80 billion to take care of all of Washington state. The tolling report says a year's worth of fees would generate between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, or $36 billion in net revenue over the next 20 years (which works out to about $24 billion in today's dollars). The report calls for using the money "strategically," spending some for roadway improvement and some for improving bus service, light rail, and other components necessary to create a system of mass transit that serves the region comprehensively with alternatives to costly driving. "There are a number of reasons why the state and the region should adopt the TIF," the report says of the fees. "However, the best reason is that the TIF is the fairest way to fund the region's desired transportation improvements. The great advantage of the TIF is that those who pay the TIF will gain the benefit. Those who do not use the system will not be required to pay for it." "We are entering a period of consequences," the report states. "Dithering half-measures that produce incremental or fiscally bound partial 'solutions' to our transportation problems are eroding confidence in public stewardship and trust." Along with less congestion and increased road funding, the report says some toll revenue should be used to expand light rail, give the region more transit service, more park-and-ride lots, more bicycle lanes, and, because it would encourage a "substantial reduction in single-occupancy vehicle miles of travel and would encourage carpooling," as well as more transit use, it would enhance environmental sustainability. If voters in November approve the Puget Sound-area RTID, generating $14.5 billion will cost the average household $218 a year in additional sales taxes and vehicle fees. Then what? Hallenbeck, who teaches urban transportation courses on highway infrastructure and underlying political, administrative, and financial ramifications, says it will be difficult to raise the sales tax enough to solve the crisis. The only viable answer, say Sims and his experts, is tolling. While other prominent elected officials have yet to endorse tolling publicly, many government planners like the idea. "We don't have a lot of room to add more roads, so we need to manage what we have better," says Jemae Hoffman, a transportation manager with the City of Seattle. "Having people make more conscious, economic decisions about where they drive and when they drive could help make more efficient use of our roadway system, and also give drivers more reliability by making it easier to predict travel times." "Here's what I really worry about," Sims says. "We know that fuel prices, density, and global warming will define transportation in the future. And the tools we're using now don't address any of that. We're using the wrong model. The existing system drives us to one outcome, which is increased levels of emissions – of carbon dioxide – and increased pollutants in the atmosphere, and slower times between one point and another. "For a community that's supposed to have imagination and foresight," he adds, "I don't know why we are stuck defining the issue as we're now defining it, and using solutions that have proven all over the world not to work." Indeed, data from the Puget Sound Regional Council, as well as from just about every other major urban region in the country, show that traffic congestion increases relentlessly each year. Arizona planners are proposing a 24-lane freeway near Phoenix – yet, according to officials there, it won't reduce congestion. As the Sims tolling report says, simply building more roads is no longer a solution by itself. The region's current strategy, the report states, has tended to focus on three key elements:
  • Providing more road space where that makes sense.
  • Improving the way roads are managed.
  • Promoting smarter travel choices through improved public transit.
"These are good approaches to transportation," the authors write. "However, by ignoring the basic laws of supply and demand when it comes to the transportation system, we continually fight a losing battle against congestion." Both Sims and his report say we cannot continue to build new roads. Often, roadways with the most congestion lack the space to add additional lanes. In addition, the report contends, "There are limits to the amount of road building people are prepared to accept for environmental and social impact reasons." Opiola, whose team crafted the format and geographic scope of the Sims pricing strategy, sees tolling as a more efficient and affordable alternative to spending $20 billion to widen the Ship Canal Bridge on I-5, to cite one example. "If somebody says, 'We have a congestion problem in Seattle,' the first response is, 'We need to build more roads.'" But, Opiola warns, "When the supply has no price, then demand will always exceed it." Enough lanes are never enough. Opiola, who lives in London, was a pioneer in the field of electronic road pricing and has worked on congestion pricing plans worldwide. He points out that movie theaters use similar schemes when they offer discount admission for matinees, and power companies play the same pricing game when they charge premiums for electricity during peak use periods – "because it's still supply and demand." "The one thing I've seen from all of my work around the world is this: When you put in a charging system, you get people making 20 percent to 25 percent fewer vehicle trips during the pricing period," he says.   

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors