Washington lawmakers plan to pass a major highway-tolling bill

No sense waiting: With failure of Proposition 1 in metro Puget Sound, they say, guidelines need to be established for the inevitable use of tolls to pay for transportation improvements.
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Highway 520 across Lake Washington

No sense waiting: With failure of Proposition 1 in metro Puget Sound, they say, guidelines need to be established for the inevitable use of tolls to pay for transportation improvements.

Look for a major highway tolling bill to come out of the 2008 Washington Legislature, which convenes in January. Transportation leaders say they're confident they can pass legislation next year that will create a framework for how tolls will be imposed and collected down the road. That might not mean tolls will be collected anytime soon, however.

"I think everybody understands that tolling is in our future, there's just no question about it," says State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. "We need some general guidelines on how we do tolling across the state. Who's going to collect the tolls, who's going to be responsible for collecting the tolls?

The bill as drafted says the Legislature would have sole authority to impose tolls, thus excluding local jurisdictions. Toll prices would be set by the Washington State Transportation Commission, an appointed body. The bill would allow tolls to continue to be collected after a project is paid off - a significant departure from current policy. Finally, the legislation permits toll prices to fluctuate between peak and off-peak travel times, which is called "variable pricing." Other key decisions will be whether tolling can be used to manage demand and whether money raised from tolls could be applied broadly – say, to underwrite transit.

Lawmakers say the failure of Proposition 1, the Puget Sound-area roads-and-transit ballot measure, is contributing to a speeded timeline for imposing tolls. The money is needed to fund mega-projects like replacement of the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. Officials are trying to come up with a financing plan by Jan. 1. With defeat of Proposition 1, the $4.4 billion dollar 520 project is now about $2 billion short. A new floating bridge could not open before 2018, so the sooner tolls are applied, even on the existing bridge, the lower they can be. That could mean tolls will have to be imposed on the current bridge as early as 2009. And perhaps also on Interstate 90, the other floating bridge across Lake Washington, so commuters don't just divert around one toll bridge.

"The message [from voters] is ... use user fees, and this is a user fee," says state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chair of the House Transportation Committee. But charging commuters a pre-construction toll is a tough sell, says Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. "Somebody made the comment to me that it was like going into a BMW dealer and saying I want to sign up for a BMW, and they say, 'OK, your payment is $500 a month, and we'll deliver the car to you in 2012,'" explains Jarrett. "That's not the way we've trained customers to act in this country. I think there's a political push-back that comes with that."

Jarrett says a different solution would be to tap the state budget surplus to help fund top-priority road projects. That could also help keep the price of tolls in the $3 to $6 range - something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they're committed to doing. But so far, majority Democrats have resisted the idea of dipping into the general fund to pay for highway projects.

Other possible sources of 520 money are money pledged for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront, which is also a safety problem and a political can of worms (though at least it is not a serious congestion headache like 520); and some form of a regional carbon tax, where purchasers of gas-guzzlers and other carbon-heavy items pay a surcharge.

It's not just the failure of Proposition 1 that's creating a budget pinch. Federal money for state highway projects has all but dried up. Prospects for another roads-and-transit ballot measure appear dim. And revenue from the gas tax are showing signs of flattening. The state has increased gas taxes in recent years, but the fundamental imbalance remains: With aging infrasctructure and growing congestion, there just aren't enough sources of money without the feds. Taxpayers are simultaneously clamoring for relief and saying no to raising taxes.


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