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Tolling I-90 bridge: It’s a matter of fairness

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 29, 2009 at 7:43 pm with 1 Comment »
January 29, 2009 7:43 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Lake Washington commuters ought to shoulder a hefty share of a new Highway 520 bridge.

It’s official: The Federal Highway Administration will go for tolls on the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington if the Legislature goes for them.

So go for the tolls, Legislature. It’s a matter of fundamental fairness to Washingtonians who live outside the neighborhood of Seattle and Bellevue.

The fairness works like this:

The Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington must be replaced, at a projected cost of at least $4.6 billion and perhaps as much as $6.6 billion. Also, Gov. Chris Gregoire plans to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel, which will also cost more than $4 billion. Together, these projects look likely to suck the funding out of highway improvements across the state – including high- priority jobs in the South Sound.

The more state tax revenues are spent on the Highway 520 bridge and the tunnel, the less will be available for improvements in the rest of the state. So the Legislature should adopt any reasonable measures that promise to contain the cost of those projects.

Measures like tolls on the I-90 bridge.

In terms of purpose and people served, the two spans are joined at the hip. They both carry commuters between Seattle and the Eastside. The users of each bridge are benefited by the other. Many drivers use both: When the 520 bridge gets jammed, thousands of its usual customers move to the I-5 bridge, and vice versa.

A task force’s report released this week demonstrated how much the tolls on I-90 would do to help finance the 520 bridge. The task force – which included Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond – found that tolling only 520 would raise, at best, $1.52 billion. But tolling both bridges could raise as much as $2.46 billion.

The feds this week said they’re OK with tolling the I-90 bridge. Polling suggests that a lot of Puget Sounders are OK with it, too.

The tolls are user fees that would require commuters to pay as they go for the new bridge. They would also reduce jams on both bridges. Because the proposed tolls would rise or fall in response to congestion, they would encourage drivers to avoid peak hours – or avoid the tolls altogether by using transit.

Another argument for quick legislative action: The state will forfeit $154 million in federal funds if it does not begin tolling next year.

As far as the state as a whole is concerned, the argument for tolling these bridges boils down to a simple question: Do the drivers who cross Lake Washington pay for part of the Highway 520 bridge, or do people elsewhere in the state sacrifice their own road improvements to that span?

The answer ought to be obvious.

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Leave a comment Comments → 1
  1. Comparing toll rates to the Narrows Bridge is in order. On Lake Washington Bridges tolls would be zero at some times, with a base rate of $1.00 starting at 5 A.M.

    Peak tolls would be higher than on the Narrows, but still the base rate is much, much lower.

    Congestion pricing makes sense and what appears to be a success on Hwy 167 should be expanded region wide.

    A base toll of $2.75 (or $4!) should be put in place with one, (or two!), congestion priced lanes. This will do a better job than the alternatives studied by the 520 Committee.

    The primary charge of this group was judging public reaction to tolling here given the controversial history as well as determining likely impacts from drivers seeking alternatives.

    Let’s hope they get the details of implementing this funding source right. Certainly there are plenty of reasons for taxpayers to be ‘concerned’ about their behavior in other areas. Let’s hope ‘they’ don’t turn this positive option into the same pile of financial **** that has been the product elsewhere.

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