That Washington

Federal Ruling Could Erase $1 Billion in Funding for 520

By Erica C. Barnett April 13, 2010

A ruling last week by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could put funding for the proposed $4.6 billion 520 bridge replacement in jeopardy, eliminating approximately $1 billion in potential revenue from tolls on I-90 across Lake Washington.

City leaders have repeatedly expressed support for tolling the I-90 bridge across Lake Washington (in addition to tolling the 520 bridge) in part because tolling revenues from both bridges could help close the funding gap for a 520 bridge replacement. The state has been counting on tolling I-90 to pay for about $1 billion of the 520 bridge replacement.

However, last week, LaHood rejected a petition by the state of Philadelphia to allow toll money from Interstate 80, which cuts across the center of the state, to be spent to help offset a transit funding shortfall. In his ruling, LaHood cited a little-known Bush-era federal law that prohibits the use of tolls collected on interstate freeways to pay for anything other than improvements to the freeway itself.

The ruling presents a huge, perhaps insurmountable, impediment to transportation leaders' plans here in Washington State, where I-90 tolls were supposed to help pay for 520, in addition to improvements to I-90 itself. The loss of that revenue would leave 520 with a funding shortfall of about $1 billion.

"If Washington State wanted to toll I-90 it would be unable to do so right now, unless [toll money] went right back into that road," Bill LaBorde, policy director at the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, said at a forum last week. "This is one place where the Obama Administration is less progressive than the Bush Administration." (It's conceivable, LaBorde says, that toll funds could be used to build light rail on I-90, but that remains "a bit speculative.")

Contacted by phone today, LaBorde called the ruling "a huge deal" for the region. "A lot of people are thinking the Obama Administration is out of options for financing transportation in the next six-year [transportation] bill," which was supposed to have been adopted in 2009.

"Maybe they’ll revisit that issue in crafting a new bill." However, LaBorde adds, the Administration may fear that drivers will revolt (and vote against Democrats in Congress) if their toll money is used to pay for unrelated projects.

City Council members Tom Rasmussen and Richard Conlin, who've been active on the 520 issue, have not yet returned calls for comment; we've also got calls in to WSDOT deputy director David Dye, house transportation committee chair Judy Clibborn, and the office of Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who reportedly supports the federal tolling policy.
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