520 gets closer to tolls
Seattle Times transportation reporter
The state is moving closer to imposing tolls on the old Highway 520 Bridge, in a House budget bill passed Friday.
No dollar amount or start date was set, but the legislation instructs the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to seek federal money, and prepare some Eastside high-occupancy vehicle projects to go along with so-called "preconstruction tolling."
Tolling the old bridge would help raise money for a replacement. It could also reduce rates charged on the new bridge, said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. Tolls could begin by next year or 2010, she said.
Gov. Christine Gregoire last month said about $2 billion in tolls must be raised to help pay for a proposed six-lane, $4 billion crossing, to open in 2018.
Tolls would be higher in busy times. Drivers might pay $6 to $7 round trip at peak times on the old bridge, and $6 to $10 per round trip (in today's dollars) on the new one, according to a report issued by Gregoire, who is seeking additional research.
Drivers paid to cross the bridge when it opened in 1963, until construction costs were paid off in 1979. Reimposing the toll would irritate many drivers, who pay 36 cents a gallon in state gas tax, the fifth-highest in the U.S.
To make a toll more acceptable, road improvements would start in the short term on the east side of Lake Washington, Clibborn said.
High-occupancy vehicle traffic, which now runs on outside lanes, would be shifted to the inside. The HOV lanes are often clogged, and studies show above-average cheating rates. "What we have now is a situation where everyone merges into the HOV lanes, and there's gridlock," Clibborn said.
The state DOT would also propose designs for bus stops, HOV ramps, bike lanes and landscaped lids, in a report due Sept. 1.
"Rather than call it 'early tolling,' we're calling it 'pay-as-you-go tolling,' " said Clibborn. "You would pay for that project and you would feel the change immediately, so you wouldn't be paying for something that is nine years out."
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, predicted that the proposal would pass the Senate, where he is transportation committee vice chairman, and into law.
Legislators have called a new bridge an urgent issue of safety and mobility, yet so far have earmarked only $560 million, or roughly 5 percent of what will be raised from recent gas-tax increases.
Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, offered an amendment Friday to prevent early tolling, saying a new bridge should be built with existing funds. "We haven't earned the public's trust yet, to put a [tolling] proposal on the table," he said.
The House bill also instructs DOT to pursue a $139 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, which last year picked the old bridge for an experiment in so-called "congestion pricing," to see if tolls reduce traffic. The grant would pay for toll equipment, buses and park-and-ride space, in a plan championed by King County Executive Ron Sims.
Drivers would pay electronically through a windshield sticker.
Also charging tolls on the Interstate 90 bridge could lower the rate, but that's even more controversial. State law would need to change, and the Federal Highway Administration would have to agree.
State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said she foresees some toll on I-90 — either for all lanes, or just for solo drivers to pay to enter the HOV lanes.
Staff reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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