passenger rail

Tolls, Sooner

Seattle City Council wants tolls on 520 and 90, starting in 2010. This is even more aggressive than the fastest schedule that the tolling committee is considering:

Council President Richard Conlin, who also heads the council’s SR 520 Committee, presented a letter to the committee, saying council members hope tolls will help “improve mobility throughout the region.” The fare, around $2.30 one-way, depending on the time of travel, is “relatively modest yet still raises adequate revenue,” he said.

By signaling that he wants the tolling to help manage congestion even before a new bridge is built, this proposal would rate a solid 4 out of 6 on my home-grown congestion pricing controversy-meter. Bold, but not politically impossible.

A major sticking point is what to do about Mercer Island. Island residents might suddenly have to pay a toll to go just about anywhere if there’s a toll on I-90. On the one hand, that seems fair, certainly residents of Puget Sound’s other islands (Vashon, Orcas, etc.) pay tolls to get on or off the Island. On the other hand, it’s not something that most residents had in mind when they first moved there.

Regardless, there are a ton of ways to mitigate this, and I’m sure they will all get discussed at the next tolling open house which is, as luck would have it, on Mercer Island. You could set up the toll transponders on the other side of the island, so that Mercer Islanders could ride free to and from Bellevue, for example, but would have to pay to get into Seattle. Then they’d be in the same boat as the rest of the Eastside (‘cept for the 206 area code, natch!).

The more interesting problem is how you handle people who don’t have transponders in their cars. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge has a single toll booth for people to pay cash. The 520 committee, on the other hand, is touting a “no toll booths” strategy, according to their site:

However, we know that some vehicles will not have transponders or may be visiting from out of town. These vehicles will have their license plate photographed and can prepay or be invoiced for the toll, which will include an additional surcharge for processing the video.

This seems like it’s going to piss a lot of people off, especially the additional surcharge bit. And I see no way they can get 4 toll booths and the requisite right-of-ways built between now and 2010.

Toll Roads in Indiana and New Jersey

I’ve been meaning to link to this article in the NY Times on the Indiana Toll Road, one of the big experiments in privately-operated highways in America. The contractor has been able to save money on maintenance by introducing a few efficiencies in toll-collection and equipment purchasing. All of this is good for the residents of Indiana, in the short term.

Still, there are long-term problems with such arrangements. It’s very hard for the State to get the price right in the short term, and too easy for electeds to give away the store in exchange for that one-time up-front payment.

Gettin' HOT In Here

HOT Lanes on SR 167 open April 26:

If the lanes are heavily congested, the toll could cost several dollars. But it could save drivers time they’d otherwise spend in more crowded general lanes. State officials think tolls in badly congested periods could rise to $4, though an electronic tracking system is set up to assess a maximum of $9.

Unlike the Narrows, there’ll be no tollbooths. Electronic scanners will note a HOT-lane user’s passage by reading a car-mounted transponder containing an electronic chip, and the system will deduct the charge from a prepaid account.

You can sign up for a transponder at the Good To Go site.

Congestion Pricing

Ben says congestion pricing is a political loser in the short run, and it’s a fight that transit advocates “don’t need.” I basically agree, but I think we need to take a step back to define our terms and parse out some of the separate arguments.

Tolling and congestion pricing (and even “pay as you drive” insurance) are mechanisms being debated right now to either (a) provide a source of transportation revenue, (b) de-incentivize SOV driving, or (c) both. Here are a few ideas that have been mooted in this area:

  1. Toll new bridges (e.g. the Tacoma Narrows) at a fixed rate to pay for the cost of building and maintaining the bridge
  2. Install HOT lanes (e.g. SR 167) to manage demand and collect revenue
  3. Toll new bridges/roads (e.g. SR 520) at a variable rate to pay for the cost and manage demand
  4. Toll existing bridges/roads (e.g. SR 520) at a variable rate to manage demand and collect revenue for an eventual replacement
  5. Install a transponder in every car and toll people for every mile they drive on all major highways in the region, to manage demand and collect revenue
  6. Do any of #2 – #5 above, but also siphon off some of the money to pay for transit projects.

I’ve ordered these in the order of how politically controversial they seem. #1 and #2 are so uncontroversial, they’re already happening! #3 is pretty likely and #4 is less likely, but gained at least tacit support in the legislature this year. It’s #5 and #6 that really get people’s goats. neither of those are particularly close at hand. #5 basically exists in just two places: London and Ron Sims’ brain.

#6 gets to the heart of Ben’s argument. This is where the controversy would arise. But this option is a long way off, especially some version of 5+6, which, Ben’s right, would create a firestorm of protest. In Olympia this session, Democrats beat back GOP efforts to explicitly ban #6, but that just leaves it open as an option, it doesn’t commit us to it. And judging by Mary Haugen’s email inbox, it’s quite a radioactive subject.

Finally, as the gas tax money dries up, there will be increasing pressure to use toll money to pay for roads. As a result, there will almost certainly be little left over to pay for transit (except maybe HOV lanes, bike lanes, and other road improvements that also benefit transit).

So, long story short, I think we’ve got a ways to go, and a lot of noncontroversial and semi-controversial options to consider in the meantime.

Framework for Tolls

We don’t have tolls yet, but we have an important first step: a framwork for imposing tolls:

The House voted 59-35 in favor of House Bill 1773, a measure that sets a policy for how, when and on whom tolls would be imposed in future transportation projects. The bill, which now goes to the Senate, was approved largely on a party-line vote. A handful of Republicans joined majority Democrats to pass it.

“It does not impose a toll,” Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said in the debate in Olympia. “Tonight, we are not imposing tolls.”

Rather, she said, lawmakers are setting the framework for future discussions on tolling facilities across the state.

Among those are the $4.4 billion Highway 520 bridge in King County, Interstate 5 bridges over the Columbia River to Portland, a freeway at the edge of Spokane, Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass and – although it’s unlikely – the $2.8 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

Transit advocates should be pleased, mostly about what was not included in the bill. The amendments that would have prevented the funds from being spent on transit or from tolling the existing 520 bridge were both defeated.

Everything's Bigger in Texas

Even the proposed multimodal toll roads:

The project grew to consist of four “priority segments:” new multimodal toll roads up to 1,200 feet wide paralleling Interstates 35 and 37 from Denison in North Texas to the Rio Grande Valley; a proposed I-69 from Texarkana to Houston and Laredo; I-45 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston; and I-10 from El Paso to Orange on the Louisiana border. But the exact routes are years away from being designated.

With construction, land acquisition and other expenses, the cost was estimated in 2002 at up to $183.5 billion, all of it to be put up by private investors, state officials say. No existing roads would gain tolls.

I can’t even imagine a 1200-foot-wide road. That’s a quarter-mile!

(h/t Matski)

The Case for Private Roads

I’m generally opposed to the idea of privately-run infrastructure, for a myriad of reasons, but this New York Times story on Pennsylvania’s tolling of I-80 suggests that there may be one benefit to such an approach that I’d thusfar overlooked:

The push to charge tolls along I-80 followed legislators’ rejection of Mr. Rendell’s proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors, an approach taken in Illinois, Indiana and Virginia. Lawmakers were wary that the investors might raise tolls too quickly.

The governor continues to support that idea, though, because the proceeds could be used for more than highway repairs alone. Under the bill passed last July, as well as federal rules, revenue from tolls on I-80 can be spent only on that Interstate.

There’s been a lot of talk around here, most recently between Josh Feit and Will @ HA as to how much of a regional toll could be used for transit. I think they were talking past each other a bit, but the central question is relevant: how much will people tolerate their tolls being used for other purposes?

Gov. Rendell’s strategy seems like an interesting end-around. You lease the highway to a private company, and the revenues go into some general fund — or some general transportation fund, better — and so you’ve got some insulation. The challenge, of course, is to make sure that it gets spent wisely, and that the private company doesn’t pull a Halliburton and rip us all off. But it does have the advantage of getting around whatever State laws might restrict the funds.

Paying for the Tolls on 520

I posted a comment on this piece over on Crosscut, but it turned into an interesting point so I thought I’d re-post here. In weighing the pros and cons of tolls, Casey Corr writes:

I doubt the public has paid much attention to planners’ talk about “congestion pricing,” which is proposed in the new plan. Environmentalists support the concept as a means of “encouraging” the use of public transit and of reducing auto pollution. But what’s the answer to the construction worker in the pickup truck who starts to believe he’s been priced off a public road?

My answer: That he should pass the increased costs on to the general contractor that’s employing him, no?

I live in Seattle and do consulting on the Eastside. I already charge my clients a travel fee, so I’d just have to add on the toll. If it actually does work to reduce congestion, presumably I’d be spending less time in traffic and my productivity would go up, so it’d be a wash overall.

And if my client decides to go with a consultant on the Eastside? Even better — that’s one less car off the bridge: mine.

More on 520 Tolls

Variable pricing, up to $7 at peak, and also tolls on I-90. Great, I’m all for that. Starting in 2009? Genius.

About the lack of light rail, Ben at STB makes a good point that by the time Sound Transit ever got around to putting trains on 520, even a new bridge will be halfway to the end of it’s natural life. So it’s not as big a deal as I’d made it out to be yesterday. Greg Nickels agrees.

Tolling for Transit

Austin Jenkins reports:

The bill as drafted says the Legislature would have sole authority to impose tolls, thus excluding local jurisdictions. Toll prices would be set by the Washington State Transportation Commission, an appointed body. The bill would allow tolls to continue to be collected after a project is paid off – a significant departure from current policy. Finally, the legislation permits toll prices to fluctuate between peak and off-peak travel times, which is called “variable pricing.” Other key decisions will be whether tolling can be used to manage demand and whether money raised from tolls could be applied broadly — say, to underwrite transit.

That last part is key. Our current state gas taxes can only be used for highways. Getting drivers to pay for transit projects would be a big shift, but a needed one. For example, Cascadia Prospectus, in the process of unveiling the Discovery Institute’s own plan, notes that the Port Authority of NY and NJ is going to increase the tolls on the Hudson River crossings to $8 at peak, in part to help finance a second commuter rail tunnel.

One can only imagine the kind of hysteria we’d see here in the Puget Sound, if, say, drivers crossing the 520 bridge had to pay a toll to help finance a light rail link. But that’s the direction we need to be going in. Thusfar the only such efforts (that I can recall) to have drivers subsidize transit — the Monorail and ST2 car-tab taxes — have fallen apart. And the success of I-695, which gutted the car-tab fees that were used to fund transit projects, has no doubt made lawmakers leery of taxing drivers to fund transit.

For all Prop. 1’s flaws, one upside was that it would have reinforced a holistic approach to transportation funding, and perhaps given credence to the idea that gas and car taxes could be used to fund transit projects. But maybe that’s being too optimistic.