$6 to $7 tolls on 520 starting next year?
Drivers who cross the Highway 520 floating bridge would pay a toll as soon as next year under Gov. Christine Gregoire's financing plan to...
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Bridge finance planThe state needs to cut costs and raise $2 billion to pay for a new, $4 billion Highway 520 bridge. Here's the proposal:
Save $400 million by narrowing the road deck and starting work on the pontoons next year.
Place tolls on the existing bridge and charge tolls on the new bridge once it's finished.
Consider tolls on the Interstate 90 bridge.
Drivers who cross the Highway 520 floating bridge would pay a toll as soon as next year under Gov. Christine Gregoire's financing plan to replace the aging span.
The state also should consider a toll on the Interstate 90 bridge to raise additional cash, Gregoire said Thursday, in releasing the 520 proposal.
Gregoire endorsed using tolls to plug a $2 billion hole in the plan to construct a new, $4 billion floating bridge with four general lanes and two high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
The rest of the money would come from state gas taxes, federal grants and other sources.
The new bridge would open in 2018.
"If all we do is begin tolling in 2018, and only on 520, my fear is the price will be so high we will cause a mess outside 520," Gregoire said.
The finance plan assumes a round-trip toll of $6 to $7 during heavy commute hours, starting next year.
And when the new bridge opens in 2018, tolls could peak at somewhere between $6 and $10 round-trip in 2007 dollars. That's just one scenario, which doesn't include tolls on I-90.
Any plan to charge tolls to cross a bridge that's scheduled to be torn down, or to charge tolls on one bridge to help pay for another, is bound to be controversial.
The existing 520 bridge was finished in 1963, and the original tolls to pay for it expired in 1979.
Although Gregoire's Democratic Party controls the Legislature, it's not clear whether lawmakers will go along with such an aggressive strategy.
"I think there will be concerns. I don't know if they will be insurmountable," said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the House Transportation Committee chairwoman.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he supports the finance plan. The recommendation for tolling early "will be the area of greatest resistance," he said. "But I think it can be done."
In any case, lawmakers aren't expected to approve specific tolls until the 2009 session.
Gregoire did not say definitively that tolling should begin next year. But a proposal Thursday from the state Department of Transportation assumes a 2009 launch. And Gregoire wholeheartedly endorsed charging tolls on the existing bridge.
The governor also supports variable tolls, which would be higher when traffic is busy and lower when traffic is light. King County Executive Ron Sims said such tolls can reduce traffic congestion and encourage the use of mass transit.
Gregoire said replacing the 520 bridge is urgent, because it could collapse in high winds or an earthquake.
The method of collecting tolls on the old 520 bridge would be similar to the way it's done on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Most users there pay electronically, without stopping at a toll booth.
Motorists prepay into a state account, called "Good to Go." When cars approach the bridge at normal speed, an overhead device reads a transponder sticker on the windshield and money is automatically deducted from the account. Some toll booths exist for those without transponders.
Highway 520 already has space for a toll plaza on the east shore, left from when the original tolls expired nearly 30 years ago.
The state won a federal grant last summer to launch variable tolls on the existing bridge as an experiment to reduce traffic.
The Department of Transportation (DOT), along with King County, must use the $139 million by 2009 or lose the money. It includes $86 million for tolling and driver-information devices; $41 million to increase buses and park-and-ride lots; and $12 million for Seattle-area ferry service.
Clibborn wants toll rates similar to those for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, currently $3 per round trip. However, the Narrows bridge tolls are fixed, not variable, as Gregoire suggests for 520.
Placing a toll on Interstate 90 to help pay for Highway 520 would require changes in state law and permission from the Federal Highway Administration, because I-90 is part of the national freeway system.
Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman said I-90 money shouldn't be used for other highways, or the charge would "become not a toll, but a tax."
But tolling 520 in isolation would cause some drivers to fill other roads, including I-90 and Highway 522, around the north end of Lake Washington.
Clibborn wants to consider a toll system on 522 that would charge lone drivers to enter the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
The state needs a new 520 funding plan after voters last November rejected Proposition 1, a regional tax package that earmarked $1.1 billion for the bridge.
DOT says the cost of the bridge can be cut to $4 billion from an earlier estimate of $4.4 billion, by starting work early and narrowing the road deck.
The state could save $250 million by starting to build the bridge's pontoons next year, instead of next decade, said David Dye, urban-corridors administrator for the state DOT. And using just one row of 75-foot-wide pontoons, instead of two, would save another $150 million.
The dual-pontoon system originally was meant to allow Sound Transit light-rail, or a wider road deck, to be added someday. Eliminating that option also could prove controversial.
"Her plan lacks foresight to see that 520 will need additional lanes in the future and the ability to accommodate high-capacity transit," said state Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, ranking Republican on the transportation committee.
Nickels, who is also Sound Transit's board chairman, said the agency is already designing a light-rail crossing on the I-90 bridge "so maybe we don't need to build light rail on 520 in the future."
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said one possible cost-saving move would be to retrofit portions of the existing bridge, but an engineering study is needed to ensure it won't sink.
Ericksen also ridiculed the governor's timetable.
"Olympia's culture of failure is so entrenched that it is just accepted without question that the state cannot build a new bridge for 10 years," he said.
"Surely in this day and age it can be built sooner and with more economic efficiency. It's amazing we will have to wait until 2018 to address an emergency."
Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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