2. Avoiding a collision of transportation decisions

Mere talk about road tolls is seen as a threat to an unrelated $14.5 billion transportation ballot measure in November. That's why a proposal for widespread tolling has been secret until now.
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King County Executive Ron Sims. (King County)

Mere talk about road tolls is seen as a threat to an unrelated $14.5 billion transportation ballot measure in November. That's why a proposal for widespread tolling has been secret until now.

Copyright © 2007 by Crosscut Editor's note: This is the second 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. Earlier this year, King County Executive Ron Sims hired consultants to devise a plan to charge tolls on all major freeways (1.1 MB PDF) in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. He originally planned to release the report after a March advisory election in Seattle regarding replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But political reality prompted Sims to keep his tolling plan under wraps longer. It was to be a secret until after another, far-more-important election in November. According to Jack Opiola of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the authors of Destination 2030 – Taking an Alternative Route, Sims astutely anticipated Seattle residents' separate votes on March 13 on two ways of replacing the earthquake-vulnerable, 53-year-old elevated freeway on the waterfront. The advisory election asked if voters would favor or oppose each of two ways of replacing it – with another elevated roadway or with a far-more-expensive tunnel. Both ideas were resoundingly rejected. Earlier this year, before the election, Sims had given an international team of transportation engineers and tolling experts a mere four weeks to prepare the report, Opiola says. Sims had planned to present his tolling proposal as a solution to the region's transportation crisis after both viaduct-replacement ideas were rejected. "Pretty savvy," Opiola said of Sims' prediction of how the public would vote. However, explains the report's other author, Sims changed his mind and decided to keep the plan out of the public eye until after next November's election, when voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties will be asked to create a Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID). The RTID ballot measure, which could have a tough time with tax-wary voters, asks the public to assess itself $14.5 billion and create a new layer of government. But that would fund only a portion of the Puget Sound region's growing transportation needs. Sims decided not to release the tolling report until after the vote in November, "because they're afraid it would upset the public and they'd vote against the RTID," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington and the report's other principal author. "They're sitting on it." A regional task force just last week agreed on RTID projects worth $14.5 billion, and the list is a politically sensitive one, balancing the desires of pro-roads, pro-mass-transit, and environmental interests. The stakes for its passage after all that work are high. "So to be the person that kills it" by distracting the public with a tangential proposal to impose tolls, said Hallenbeck, "to be seen as killing it, it's like 'Et tu, Brute?' I think Ron is trying very hard not to be seen as the political maverick who can't work with anybody." Sims agreed to be interviewed about the report when told a copy of it was in circulation. Initially, when asked about withholding the tolling report for political reasons, Sims said other politicians did not pressure him. "Nobody said, 'Please don't release this now.' It was an internal decision," Sims insisted, adding that "everybody" on his staff involved with the tolling plan deemed the report "a document of great risk," politically speaking. "But," Sims added, "you can't refute the underlying data," which basically say a system of pay-as-you-go freeways is the only way to significantly reduce traffic congestion in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties and simultaneously generate enough revenue to fix the region's transportation mess. A few minutes later, though, seeming to contradict himself, Sims said other regional leaders were "scared to death that I would even talk about this. They say, 'Whoa, man – Ron, you have no idea of the backlash'" from voters already averse to yet another tax who are likely to bridle against any plan to make them pay for the privilege of driving on essential public roadways. Sims also said he changed his mind and chose not to announce his regional tolling proposal following the March 13 viaduct vote because "I don't want to get into what I call the 'nuclear exchange' that will take place over the document. I'm not wanting to get into a fight with anybody about this. I just say, 'Look, folks, how can we run away from this?' We can't. "No one wants to talk about congestion pricing because no one believes the voters will accept it," Sims explained, in reference to his political colleagues. "I said, 'Then we should talk to the voters about their diminished quality of life.'" "And diminished quality of life," Sims told them, "is not being able to get home. It's not being able to get to your childcare. It's not being able to watch your kids grow up. That's what it is. It's too many hours in the morning, driving, and too many hours after work, driving – that's a diminished quality of life." Sims says preserving the region's quality life is the reason he wants all limited access highways turned into toll roads – and by 2012, in time to lessen the region-wide gridlock and perpetual rush hour expected when construction begins on a new Alaskan Way Viaduct. "We're running a race against viaduct closure," Sims said. Still, said the UW's Hallenbeck, "I'd hate to be the politician who has to tell people it's gonna cost 'em $4 in each direction. If you could actually explain the benefits of the plan, I think people would accept it. But when do we ever get enough time in the media to explain something like this?" The question, Hallenbeck said, is simple: "Is Sims gonna get hammered for it?" In response, the county executive says, "Being beaten up on this one? That's understatement." And though he declined to say from whom he expected the beating – his elected colleagues or the voters – Sims clearly longs to be the man who publicly champions tolling and congestion pricing. Although he declined on several occasions to say directly he'd been pressured by others to withhold his tolling plan until after the RTID vote, the county executive seemed not only surprised that his report had found its way into the open but also relieved. "The public's entitled to know what we know," he says, which basically is that highway tolling is inevitable, and that transportation experts believe it's the only way for most people to avoid six hours of daily commuting.


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