Washington State hopes to keep tolls as low as possible to avoid a mass diversion of cars through congested downtown Seattle streets, but still looks to raise enough money to cover the project’s $200 million debt and operating costs.
The leading proposal so far involves charging four different rates that rise and fall depending on day and time. This could range from $1 on weekends and $1.50 at morning peaks to $2.25 each direction during afternoon rush hour. That pricing would hold for the two years, after which tolls would go up 3% each year from 2021 to 2025.
Of course if revenue was the only goal, the state could easily double or triple those rates, according to economists. Just a few miles away, thousands of drivers pay express-lane tolls as high as $10 to save themselves 25 minutes on their I-405 commute.
But the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is bracing itself for the period of “maximum constraint” coming up from 2019 to 2021, when expansion of the Convention Center, demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and strained transit capacity will make some of the worst traffic in the country even worse — it that’s even possible.
Elected official in Seattle are demanding low tolls so they can tempt drivers to use the tunnel that connects Sodo to South Lake Union.
Earlier this month, WSTC members decided to present their three scenarios for tolling in public hearings over the summer. That will give them opportunity to vet options before members decide on the final toll rates in fall. Tunnel use will remain free for several months after the 1.7-mile tube opens in fall 2018.
All three toll options fall within a range of $1 to $2.25 — a bit under the $2.50 rate estimated in studies last year.
Yet two scenarios call for more rates at times between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., or 2 and 3 p.m., charging an extra quarter just as traffic begins to thicken. These tolls on “shoulder of the peak” times would also generate more revenue that could be saved for tunnel repairs.
However, commissioners have worried about fluctuating rates.
“I think that is going to get the public frustrated,” said Commissioner Joe Tortorelli of Spokane County.
Yet perhaps those concerns are overblown. The Highway 520 floating toll bridge charges five toll rates that alternate through 11 time periods per weekday, ranging from $1.25 to $4.30. And that significantly more complicated system has met with minimal controversy. Vehicle owners without Good-to-Go windshield transponders can simply pay by mail for an extra $2 fee.
Commissioner Debbie Young of San Juan County asked the group to keep tolls simple, for the sake of occasional visitors who won’t understand the urban commuter tolls.
Tolls will need to repay $200 million in construction debt, a mere fraction of the $3.2 billion total cost for building the world-record 571/3-foot diameter tunnel, with approach ramps and a new waterfront boulevard, and the demolition of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.
It’s still unknown whether lawmakers will actually force drivers to pony up the extra quarter-billion dollars — a problem that wasn’t raised in public debate or even within the toll studies until 2018.
If they do ask drivers to foot the bill, initial tolls would still be kept low, but then increase in future years in order to keep the tunnel from going into the red after 2029, as WSTC projections suggest.