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Originally published Monday, September 17, 2012 at 10:24 PM

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Key state lawmaker wants Highway 99 tunnel tolls kept low

Some previously discussed toll scenarios, of more than $3 each direction, increasingly seem unworkable.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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More than three years after state lawmakers approved the Highway 99 tunnel, officials have yet to figure out how they can collect tolls for construction without clogging Seattle streets.

Some previously discussed toll scenarios, of more than $3 each direction, increasingly seem unworkable.

As many as half the drivers would try other routes, new research suggests.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she's ready to relax an existing budget target that the State Department of Transportation would support $200 million in construction bonds with toll income. That figure already was cut from $400 million.

"It really is important to all of us we not cause diversion," Clibborn said. "I have been out telling everyone to count less on money that comes from tolling, and think of tolling as a lower amount, that covers operations and maintenance."

The state DOT will release an update Wednesday on toll rates, income and traffic effects to a tolling advisory committee, two months after the report was due in July.

Linea Laird, Highway 99 program administrator, said the numbers are very preliminary and have not been analyzed by the state treasurer's office.

"You're going to see some scenarios where you can achieve the $200 million, and some where you don't," Laird said.

She emphasized the committee is still in an early fact-finding mode — and would probably look at a new set of scenarios to seek balance.

Clibborn said the DOT hasn't given up on raising $200 million, but she mentioned in a conference call that "I wanted them to know it was OK to look at other ideas."

One scenario, with tolls from $1 off-peak to $3.25 peak each direction, would raise $200 million for construction but divert one-third to half the daily traffic, said an official with access to the details.

The highest tolls could cause as much as 60 percent diversion, clearly too much, Laird said.

A second scenario, with tolls from 75 cents to $2.50, would still cause 22 to 30 percent of vehicles to divert, the source said.

Reached Monday, toll-committee co-Chairwoman Maud Daudon said she didn't have the data memorized well enough to confirm figures. She said the outlook may improve as committee members examine more options.

"Nothing so far is surprising me," said Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

With city streets already full, the need to reduce excess traffic has only intensified, as plans take shape to add a basketball and hockey arena in Sodo.

A state briefing in June predicted tunnel tolls would cause 9,100 cars to divert onto other streets between 3 and 6 p.m. weekdays, or 42 percent of the 21,800 cars that would use a toll-free tunnel.

In 2009, the Legislature required that $400 million of the $3.1 billion replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct come from tolls, as part of a deal with Seattle and King County. The $400 million was a political figure to make a funding concept pencil out — but the state assured the public it was realistic.

The state whittled its target to $200 million in this year's legislative transportation budget because of a more sober look by a finance consultant at toll diversion for the Highway 520 bridge. Also, the state is conservatively assuming it can't automatically escalate tolls and debt with inflation.

As a result, the state needs to siphon $200 million from federal dollars in the statewide bridge fund, reducing the pot for other corridors, before even considering any more shortfalls.

"They're in a big bind, and their original analyses should have shown that," says Chuck Ayers, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, which has a representative on the toll panel. "I think they put the best, positive spin on that" three years ago.

Ayers favors tolling on multiple roadways along with greater availability of transit, bicycle routes and central-city housing.

Clibborn said any tunnel shortfall might be tackled through gas taxes, weight fees or other sources as one piece in a potential state funding package, to be discussed by the 2013 Legislature.

Another scenario, to toll Interstate 5 or even impose a London-style toll on all arterials entering Seattle, is too extreme at this time, Clibborn said.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn opposed the tunnel in his 2009 campaign, which included a memorable news briefing about a tolling death spiral.

McGinn claimed tolls would need to be $6 on 26,000 daily cars to raise $400 million, but his broader point was to say the state's official figures were unrealistic.

Seattle voters endorsed the tunnel in 2011 even after widespread news reports that nearly 40 percent of traffic would divert from the tunnel to avoid tolls.

"Olympia has assured us that any budget shortfall would be filled with state dollars," said a statement Monday by McGinn's spokesman, Aaron Pickus.

"Our Department of Transportation is also concerned with the level of diversion to city streets caused by tolling the tunnel. We look forward to the presentation on Wednesday."

Adding to the financial pressure, the Port of Seattle pledged $300 million but has yet to deliver money or a binding financial plan.

Clibborn said leaders still have time before the tunnel opens, at the end of 2015. Construction around the Sodo portal is ahead of schedule, and the world's widest tunnel-boring machine is being assembled in Japan for export to Seattle in the spring.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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