Are tolls the new income tax?

The public doesn't like current tolling strategies, and they aren't yet ready to accept more aggressive ones. That leaves our questionable mega-projects in a bind.

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Old-fashioned tolling booths would not come back, though the revenues would.

The public doesn't like current tolling strategies, and they aren't yet ready to accept more aggressive ones. That leaves our questionable mega-projects in a bind.

I am reminded almost every week by the Seattle Times' Joni Balter, my round-table companion on KUOW, that Washington voters have defeated the income tax. Don't bring up the topic, she says. It's a non-starter.

And it's true. Voters turned down a golden opportunity to create a tax-the-rich scheme that would make our system more progressive and raise need revenues. If Bill Gates, Sr. and the Great Recession can't convince state voters that a limited income tax would be a benefit, what will? The suspicion of and antipathy toward a state income tax runs deep here.

Now, it's virtually certain ("a slam dunk," says sponsor Tim Eyman) that a measure to limit road tolls (I-1125) will be on the fall ballot. And voters will get to weigh in on who sets tolls, how they are charged (fixed vs. variable), and what tolls are used for. The polls are already showing a general distaste for tolling. New surveys have showed that folks object to tolling I-90 (70% say don't toll it), which is key to the expansion of SR-520, they hate the idea of tolls on 520 generally, and soundly oppose a proposal to toll the Express Lanes on I-5 (63% say it's a bad idea). Opponents of the downtown tunnel have also criticized its proposed tolls.

Passage of I-1125 will likely put major crimps in oxygen hoses for two huge transportation mega-projects that are still not fully funded, even with future tolls. If tolls are limited on SR-520 and I-90 remains toll-free, it would severely limit funds for a more than $4 billion project which is still $2 billion or so short. And if tolls are limited or eliminated from the post-Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel downtown, it'll put a huge hole in that project's revenue picture too.

Washington has a tradition of limited tolling: build a new bridge, toll until it's paid for. Tolls were instituted on the first two Lake Washington bridges, Hood Canal too, and removed.

But policy makers have been moving toward more widespread tolling for some time. They want more funding for big projects, they'd like to penalize drivers and force them into transit or staying home, they'd like car and truck drivers to pay more of the true costs of maintaining the transportation system, they'd like something to replace the gas tax. It's a way to raise money, change behavior, and reduce congestion. It's a full embrace of tolling as part of social policy. 

In short, instead of tolling being like a ferry fare, it morphs into a ubiquitous, electronic revenue stream that begins to define broadly how we do things when we leave the house or apartment. Forget the toll-booth — that's a phantom of the past. Eventually, tolling would be on every major highway, even arterial. We go way down the road to become a user-fee society.

That's very much the opposite of the income tax model, which asks people to pay in proportion to their wealth. It also cuts into the notion of commonwealth. You don't pay a little something to benefit everyone, you pay what benefits you. In this way, tolling is a kind of libertarian slippery slope: she who pays, gets; she who can't pay makes other plans, or gets a little more broke. This wouldn't be as big a problem if public transportation worked, but alas, it's facing major cutbacks.

Of course there are good arguments for limited and even widespread tolling. But the public has not sufficiently been prepared to accept it: The groundwork has not been laid to achieve public buy-in, at least if the polls are correct. Tolls are still seen as another tax increase, another hassle, another way to fleece us for over-built, too costly transportation projects that seemed to be planned for futures that don't exist. Take 520, for example: A recent Sightline analysis shows that the Washington Department of Transportation has been wrong for a decade about increased traffic on the bridge. Why is it going to six lanes when traffic is flat or declining?

This gets at the issue of trust, as with the income tax. The income tax was defeated in part because opponents successfully argued that you might start by taxing the rich, but soon tax levels would sink and snatch the rest of us. And no one really believed that any existing taxes, like sales or property or B&O, would go down to compensate. Taxes always seem to defy Newton's laws. 

So there is resistance to tolls for practical reasons, but also because there is skepticism about how they will be used. Eyman's initiative wants to limit tolls to the facilities that are tolled so they won't slowly become a general tax for other purposes. It's true that tolling authorities elsewhere have sometimes used toll revenues for other things. New York City's Robert Moses, much of whose power rose from his iron-clasp on tolling revenues, was able to help fund things like an unsanctioned and unprofitable world's fair with tolls from unrelated projects. In California, road tolls have been proposed to fund local schools.

Worse for green tolling advocates is that WSDOT is pursuing projects that sustainability advocates, like the Sierra Club and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, are questioning. Assuming that tolls are the right tool for managing traffic, funding transportation, and getting people out of their cars, the hope for expanded tolling will be damaged to the extent that WSDOT builds projects that are too highway-centric, or not transit-focussed. Expanding 520 and the waterfront tunnel, which with tolling will likely spill a lot of traffic onto surface streets without enough mitigation, work against green goals, and offer an excuse for voters to use the Eyman initiative as a monkey wrench. One can vote to limit tolls if you hate them, but you can also vote for I-1125 if you think it will, for a limited time at least, force WSDOT to reconsider its plans.

The Eyman initiative can draw support from a statewide, natural base of toll-haters (many from places that will never see a road toll), and add to that opponents of the big projects the tolls would enable: People who might be pro-toll in theory, but are alarmed at the funding, scale, and impact of some big road projects that seem to be designed for a false future, per Sightline. Such opposition will make for strange occasional bedfellows (some anti-tunnel folks might find themselves situationally on the same side as anti-Sound Transit Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, Jr.), but we shouldn't be surprised. 

Like the income tax, the case for the spread of tolling and where it's taking us has not yet been made.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.