Should roads have tolls to fight global warming?
Two global-warming bills likely to pass the Legislature this session could open the door to tolls on major highways in the central Puget...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Transportation and global warmingHouse Bill 2815
Limits greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020,
to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Creates an emissions-reporting system for industries that generate at least 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually and vehicle fleets that emit at least 2,500 metric tons per year. The first reports would be due in 2010.
Sets goals for reducing per-capita vehicle miles traveled 18 percent by 2020, 30 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050.
Authorizes state officials to help develop a market-based system aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions across the West.
House Bill 1773
Doesn't authorize specific tolls but lays out general policies and says tolls should be used to help reduce greenhouse gases.
Allows tolls to vary by time of day.
Requires that tolls be spent on the facilities where they're collected.
Requires the Legislature to authorize tolls on a case-by-case basis before they can be imposed.
Allows tolls to be put in place permanently.
OLYMPIA — Two global-warming bills likely to pass the Legislature this session could open the door to tolls on major highways in the central Puget Sound region as a way to reduce traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Environmental groups consider the bills critical to a larger effort to get people out of their cars and into public transportation. Transportation accounts for almost half of the state's greenhouse-gas emissions.
House Bill 2815 requires the state to sharply reduce greenhouse gases between now and 2050. It also calls for slashing the number of miles traveled by vehicles in the state by half in the same time period.
The second bill, House Bill 1773, says tolls should be used to reduce greenhouse gases. It would allow tolls to become permanent and to vary in price based on the time of day.
Both bills passed the House and are in the Senate. They're expected to become law.
Any widespread tolling strategy would likely face strong political opposition and wouldn't happen any time soon.
But environmental groups backing the measures ultimately want the region to use tolls to discourage travel by car, especially during peak travel times. The tolls also could raise billions of dollars to maintain highways and bulk up public transit as an alternative way to travel.
Such a strategy is often referred to as congestion pricing or variable tolling.
A study done last year found the state could raise up to $36 billion over 20 years by charging variable tolls on major highways from Lakewood, Pierce County, north to Everett and as far east as Issaquah.
"Congestion pricing is a key piece of the puzzle," along with increased public transportation and more walkable communities, said Jessyn Farrell, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which backs the legislation.
Such a tolling system would provide "a guaranteed commute where right now you're stuck in traffic," Farrell said.
State officials shy away from saying Washington is headed toward widespread tolling.
"I don't know what will happen in the future," said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn. "I don't think people are ready to get out of their cars yet."
Tolls likely unavoidable
Yet Clibborn acknowledges the legislation could set the stage for a variable tolling system years from now. And most legislative leaders say tolls of some sort are a given.
Already, drivers pay to cross the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and Gov. Christine Gregoire has called for adding tolls on the Highway 520 bridge as early as next year to help pay to replace the existing span.
There's also talk of tolls on the Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington. And on Highway 167, from Auburn to Renton, the state plans to let solo drivers pay a toll to use the car-pool lanes starting this spring.
Environmentalists see these initial projects as a way to get the public used to the idea of paying to use the roads.
"My hope is that once we try these pilot projects on Highway 167 and the 520 Bridge, people will really see they're getting an added benefit," Farrell said. "I could see this conversation growing exponentially within the next five years."
Clibborn, though, promises the state will move slowly when it comes to additional highway tolls. "If we bite off too big of a bite, we choke," she said.
Given that transportation is the single largest producer of carbon dioxide in Washington, environmentalists say it makes sense to move toward a tolling system that takes cars off the road.
Tolls also would provide the state a new source of money. The growth of state gas-tax revenue is slowing, and, as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, officials predict tax collections won't keep up with the cost of maintaining and improving the transportation system.
"My perspective is that you're going to have to do these tolls because it's the only way you're going to generate [the money] to do the transportation-system improvements you need," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
A study done last year by researchers at the University of Washington and the Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm recommended the state adopt a tolling system that charges people to travel on all the major highways in the central Puget Sound area.
The study, paid for by King County, envisions using electronic sensors to detect cars equipped with transponders as they enter and exit the highways. Traveling longer distances and during heavy commute times would cost more. The fee would be automatically deducted from prepaid accounts.
Options will be studied
Backers of variable tolling argue that, in fairness, much of the money generated from tolling should be used to dramatically improve public transportation. That way, people who can't afford the tolls or don't want to pay them can avoid it by using public transportation.
Buses could be brought online quickly, they contend, followed by high-capacity transit systems such as light rail. Hallenbeck and others say money would also need to go to maintain and expand the existing highway system.
Still, it's not clear that variable tolling could ever overcome political opposition in the state.
State Ecology Secretary Jay Manning stresses that it's one of several options that will be studied by experts.
He notes that cleaner technology, such as plug-in hybrid cars, will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the years ahead.
But he also said, "All the experts I talk to say it's not going to be enough to change the fleet out and have cleaner cars. We're also going to have to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and that's changing behavior. That's not easy to do."
The same bill that would allow using tolls to reduce greenhouse gases also would require state lawmakers to approve any toll proposals.
Recent history suggests that would be a tough sale.
Two bills introduced this year would have tried to link new fees to the amount of carbon dioxide a vehicle spews out. The bills had no chance of passing and didn't even get a hearing.
Yet irate voters swamped lawmakers with so many critical e-mails that Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen sent out a news release saying, "I've never had so many people asking me to kill a bill that's already dead."
Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, the Senate Republican's point person on global warming, says he's against any attempt to push people out of their cars.
"Their goal goes back to taking our choices away as consumers and forcing what they perceive as the way things ought to run and work in our society," he said.
But even Rep. Clibborn, who's very cautious about any talk of widespread tolling, thinks the state ultimately will move to a system that charges people based on how many miles they travel. Tolling could be the first step, she said.
Such a system will only happen incrementally — or not at all, Clibborn vowed.
"I think people are ahead of us on tolling. I think people are ahead of us on global warming," she said. "But we can easily step on the toes of that good message if we're not careful on how we go forward."
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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