Afternoon Jolt

Friday Jolt: Committee Goes Back to Drawing Board on Tunnel Tolling

A new report reveals more financing troubles for the downtown tunnel.

By Erica C. Barnett January 18, 2013


Afternoon Jolt

Today's loser: The tunnel. 

As we reported in September, the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) concluded that tolls of any amount on the new Alaskan Way tunnel result in either low revenues or high traffic diversion: Higher tolls would divert traffic onto parallel streets, and lower tolls wouldn't add up to $200 million. (That $200 million, of course, already represented only half of the $400 million the state originally predicted it would be able to raise from tolls.)

Now, a 15-member advisory committee on tolling has released a progress report that it will present to the state Transportation Commission next week. They've concluded (in quite an understatement), that "more work is needed to find a scenario that strikes the right balance between generating revenue and minimizing diversion."

In short, the report concludes that three different tolling scenarios fail to pencil out, resulting, once again, in either high traffic diversion or low revenues—making Mayor Mike McGinn, an outspoken tunnel opponent, today's de facto winner.

The committee looked at three scenarios. The first would maximize revenues by setting higher tolls—between $1 and $3.25 each way. The second would minimize diversion with lower tolls—between 75 cents and $2.25. And the third would attempt to balance those two goals by striking a middle ground, with tolls ranging from 75 cents and $2.50. 

The committee's findings: 

• Even after halving the state contribution from tolling, none of the three scenarios would raise $200 million, plus the state's ownership and mitigation costs;

• Although setting tolls as high as $3.25 might come close to WSDOT's funding target, it would create unacceptable diversion and congestion on I-5 and city streets, and it still wouldn't raise enough to fund mitigation;

• "Diversion was significant in each of the scenarios and created congestion that would interfere with city and regional traffic, as well as international trade and logistics operations at the Port terminals." This was true even with tolls as low as 75 cents, because those tolls would apply during the middle of the day, when there aer plenty of low-traffic, toll-free alternative routes. 

The solutions the group suggests don't exactly inspire confidence. Some would require WSDOT to change its policies to be more favorable to the tunnel—for example, by allocating toll collection costs so that less of the statewide cost for collecting tolls would come from the tunnel.

Others are sure to be controversial—such as tolling parallel routes to prevent diversion, including I-5, 405, and I-90. Still others will require political will in Olympia that's been lacking in recent years, such as securing a sustainable funding source for King County Metro. 

In the next two months, the committee will look at three more tolling scenarios, with tolls ranging from 45 cents on the low end to $3 on the high end, with the goal of threading the needle between bringing in enough money and preventing people from simply driving on other routes.

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