This Washington

One Potential Solution to Tunnel Tolling Shortfall: Toll Non-Tunnel Users?

By Erica C. Barnett September 26, 2012

As we reported last week, the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) now believes that any toll on the new Alaskan Way tunnel will produce significant diversion of cars onto downtown city streets, and that only high tolls---between $3.25 and $4 each way---can, in theory, produce the $200 million in toll revenues the state is banking on to build the $4 billion tunnel. (Imaginary quote from Mayor Mike McGinn: "TOLD YA!!")

At last week's meeting of the state's tunnel tolling committee, committee member and Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson suggested one possible solution: What if the state, instead of tolling just the tunnel, started charging tolls before drivers arrived at the tunnel itself---preventing them from

avoiding tolls by diverting onto city streets? "It might result in more revenue and less diversion," Johnson said at the meeting.[pullquote]What if the state, instead of tolling just the tunnel, started charging tolls before drivers arrived at the tunnel itself?[/pullquote]

Contacted today, Johnson told PubliCola he sees the idea as a way of increasing funding for projects that help cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders (as well, of course, as paying for the tunnel itself).

"If we’re going to create significant diversion, we’re going to need significant resources to mitigate that diversion, in the form of better transit, better bike and pedestrian connections, and better knitting together of the street network," Johnson said.

(Editorializing here, but given the state's historical animosity to paying for non-car-centric transportation projects, that prediction seems a little ... optimistic)

Anyway, Johnson told us the state's tolling projections are coming in low because it's too easy for people to simply drive around the tunnel. But what if, he said, the state charged a nominal toll (say, $1) well before either tunnel entrance---say, for example, at the Seattle Center exit on the north end---and charged the full

toll for drivers who use the tunnel? That would prevent drivers from avoiding tolls completely, and perhaps give them an incentive to stay on 99 (since they've paid part of the tunnel toll already, maybe it would be worth it to pay a little more for a quicker route through downtown).

"It's sort of a segment approach to the tunnel, as opposed to only paying if you drive through the tunnel itself," Johnson said.

But what about the (inevitable) argument that, by tolling on the tunnel approaches, the state would be charging people for a facility they aren't even using?

"That's a great question," Johnson said. "But part of the public benefit of this whole project is opening up the waterfront. There's a lot of external benefits to getting that traffic off the streets and into the tunnel."

Tolling beyond the tunnel entrances themselves would require a change in state law authorizing tunnel construction; we have a call out to state house transportation committee chair Judy Clibborn---who has previously opposed congestion pricing schemes like the one in London, where drivers have to pay a toll to enter downtown---to find out what she thinks of the idea.
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