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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Toll the Viaduct? Not So Fast

Posted by on September 26 at 15:41 PM

Today, the Seattle P-I credulously reports that Gov. Christine Gregoire plans to make up an estimated $460 million shortfall in the state’s contribution to a new Alaskan Way Viaduct with tolls of $1 a trip. (Gregoire said additional funding for a tunnel, which new numbers put at $580 million-$1.9 billion more than previously estimated, would have to come from local and regional sources.) According to the P-I’s math, that works out to about $100,000 a day ($1 for each of the 105,000 cars that use the viaduct daily), “meaning $460 million could theoretically be raised in less than 13 years.” Problem solved.

But wait a minute. There’s a major problem with the P-I’s deceptively simple math. The reason the state hasn’t talked about imposing a toll on the viaduct until now is that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has already said tolls won’t produce enough money to make a difference.

From the state’s environmental impact statement (EIS) on the viaduct:

The Viaduct Project’s Draft EIS does not evaluate tolled alternatives, in part because traffic analyses and toll studies conducted early in the environmental process predicted relatively low revenues and a high propensity for diversion to other routes as tolls increased.

In other words, tolls don’t make much of a dent, especially when people can easily move to alternative routes—as in the case of the viaduct.

A Toll Feasibility Study commissioned by the state reached similar conclusions:

The relatively short distance combined with the existence of several substitute parallel routes and a lack of peak period reverse direction and off-peak period demand limits the ultimate revenue potential…

Toll diversion to other routes, modes, time of day as well as trip chaining and elimination is
expected to average from 13% to 17% across alternatives and analysis years.

Translated, that means that not only are people going to find other routes, they’re going to eliminate and combine trips (something proponents of the surface/transit alternative, incidentally, have been saying all along). Gregoire should read her own transportation department’s findings more closely: Her tolling proposal is dead on arrival.

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Let's just have a toll to enter downtown then.

We can use the excess parking space for outdoor asphalt bowling.

"they’re going to eliminate and combine trips"

And this is a bad thing? This prospect alone could be worth the added cost. Think of the benefit to the environment!

I know! Let's build an underwater tunnel we can't afford and pay for it with imaginary money that doesn't exist!

Reality: lots of traffic on surface streets nearby.

Sam, don’t laugh. It’s worked for London…

Yeah, and Seattle resembles London in SO many ways: the 14 million people, the 2,000 year history, the part about being the financial center of the EU, and let's not forget the excellent comprehensive rapid transit system. Bzzt, next.

On the radio sunday night you said that tolls are a given and that any revenue from tolls has in fact already been calculated into the figures we are seeing (this was in response to the caller who used bridge tolls as an example). the conversation went on to state that the only reason it hasn't been discussed is because they're unpopular, but that they're there none the less.

but the PI article, however its mathematics can be dissected, suggests that whatever revenue the tolls would generate would work to chip away at the billion plus price tag.

The issue of tolls has never been fully examined or even explained in any of the reporting i've read (this PI article is the first real press i've seen about it).

so are tolls included in the figures we've been seeing or not?

Does no one in this town understand how numbers work in the real world? I can't believe that the PI would be so simpleminded as to state that the money can be repaid after 13 years with $1 tolls.

In the real world, you would at the very least need to apply a discount rate to calculate the Net Present Value of the tolls collected. At the standard rate of 10%, after 13 years, the value of the tolls collected in real dollars is only $285 million.

After 50 years, the real value of the tolls collected would be just shy of $400 million.

Granted, tolls would undoubtably increase over the period - but in order to generate even $470 million we'd need to have tolls much higher than $1 for a period much longer than 13 years.

REGIONAL tolls (coming out of RTID's revenues) are included in the figures, but they don't amount to much. WSDOT estimates tolls would generate, at the very most, $150 million.

Thanks Mayor Antoinette, this cake is really good. What that there, guv? Its really a stale bread crust and I have to give you a dollar for it. Oh ok, you's all in charge and all.

Wonder what it would be like to live in a democracy where the people have say. Ah, to dream the foolish dream.

I have to question the need of the viaduct if those who use it most will abandon it if they must pay as little as $1-$2 dollars a day.

I think the need for any large transit (not mass transit) project should be determined by whether or not the people using it everyday are willing to pay a toll that would ultimately pay off the project.

Isn't there some law of economics that has to do with setting the price for a commodity at the rate consumers will pay for it? If the Viaduct was a good in the freemarket, no one would bother producing it as the demand (need) is obviously much lower than the cost.

The toll won't be $1 or 2 each way - try $3 or $4, especially 10 years down the line.

That said, ECB finally got something right on the AWV (I need to get a few more acronyms in here, I think), which is that tolls don't get you there.

As far as social equity goes, ya just gotta love the whole "Fuck the middle-class folks in West Seattle so's we can have our pretty waterfront tunnel for cruise ship tourists and wealthy condo owners" approach (that crashing sound you just heard was RTID going down in flames, bigtime).

Johnny's got the right idea: the DOT's own argument against tolls is, de facto, an argument against the need for a viaduct replacement in the first place.

People will use surface streets to avoid a $1 toll.

Then let them use surface streets, and just tear the thing down.

$1 a trip is a pittance to pay to put all that noise and ugliness underground.

If you're not willing to pay that much - or even $3 or $4 - then all your hot air about absolutely needing the viaduct to get around is just so much diesel exhaust.

Man, I have to say, the surface road is looking better all the time. I mean, like someone already said, if people could & would simply avoid the AWV/tunnel cause of a small toll, then just get rid of the thing! It obviously isn't necessary. I grew up outside NYC and we paid much steeper tolls to get into NY via tunnel, but there wasn't any other way to go by car, so of course we didn't even think about it.

Right on, Sheesh! We posted at the same time, but with the same idea as Johnny. That makes three.

On the other hand, anyone listen to KUOW's The Conversation at lunch?

Maybe we should charge tolls on I5 to get through downtown - and on any viaduct replacement tunnel.

I5 could sure use the money for some upgrades.

Or we could use the money to pay for more public transit - and to make public transit free, instead of roads.

No can do, Mr. New Urbanism - State Law expressly forbids using tolls for public transit (in fact, as the law is now written, it would also forbid congestion pricing on I-5).

Is the WSDOT is factoring in the potential increase in population in their toll revenue projections as opposed to the present population. We'd probably do much better than the naysayers think. At the very least, we can get some funding to pay for this (imo) neccessity. As a person of modest means, I could pay a buck each way, but I'd probably avoid it for 3 or 4 bucks--the equivalent of lunch and some dinners.

BTW - tolls DO cause delays. They have frequent flier transponders on the Oakland Bay Bridge, fe, and there are still big lines of cars at peak hours - and they have a whole lot more room on the approaches to that bridge to stack up waiting vehicles than you would on SR 99 north of the Battery Street Tunnel.

the fact that any politician is seriously trying to tell a public that just had to pay through the nose for a failed monorail that somehow this thing is going to be funded by projected revenues whether they are taxes or tolls is kind of irritating.

out of curiosity, is there any reason that neither of our two senators have been trying to get money from the federal government for this (or have they)? ted stevens is funding a bridge to nowhere in AK. i'm not saying pork is a good thing, but i think the case with the viaduct is pretty clear and is probably more deserving of federal funds than stevens' bridge.

A surface road will not be some small, cute cuddly boulevard. It will be Aurora Avenue North on steriods, plus or minus a few drug dealers and hookers.

Why? A legal condition of state funding is maintaining current capacity. If you want a surface option that isn't butt ugly, you must get the state legislature to change state law.

Any other course of action is a flight of fancy.

But if the surface road is going to have stoplights like aurora does once you get north past greenlake, its going to be seriously slow as aurora can be in that part of town during rush hours.

Charles had a point-It can't hurt to take a shot at federal funds for a new viaduct or a tunnel, but we would stand a better chance if the democrats can get a majority in one or both houses.

Charles and NEO, the current administrarion isn't too keen on pouring money into infrastructure in areas where it won't score votes. Not trying to fuel any conspiracy theories, but it's politics (I believe there was a PI peice on the imposibility of securing any more Federal money for this or the 520 project). That, and a 2005 replete with natural disasters.

Agree, ECB. Unlike the 520 bridge, people have reasonable, similar options besides the viaduct that wouldn't cost extra money, and would use those instead. The toll just wouldn't work.

The surface street proponents aren't advocating building a surface 99 that maintains current capacity. They're advocating a smaller road, redistributing some of the capacity. It's still a long shot, but if someone can convince the folks in Olympia that (a) they need to take another look at WSDOT's capacity/use data and (b) maybe capacity shouldn't be the only concern, it's a possibility. We're a LONG way from a signed contract.

sorry, my last comment was meant for Biff.

Mr. X--what state law prohibits use of toll dollars for transit?

Good question. I googled around, as I'm pretty sure there is a Wa. State prohibition on the use of highway monies in general (not just tolls) for transit, and I do remember seeing it cited in both major papers during transportation debates/campaigns, but came up empty on finding a specific story. I'll keep looking and post again.

Did find the following guidelines for toll facilities that seek federal funding, which does leave the door open for the possibility of "excess" funds going to transit projects, but it's after the highway project has been paid for and the state in question has to demonstrate that there is sufficient other funding to maintain the facility. My read is that the Feds want highway toll dollars to go to the highway project, and I don't see the proposed tunnel breaking even any time soon and creating "excess" funds for transit.

(Excerpt from the Federal Highway Administration page @ USDOT)

"Federal-Aid Highway Toll Facilities

The Federal-aid highway program, when created in 1916, allowed no use of Federal-aid funds on toll facilities. This position remained unchanged until 1927 when Congress enacted legislation that permitted Federal-aid highway funding to be used to construct toll bridges and approaches. Subsequent legislation provided more flexibility on using Federal-aid highway funds for improvements to toll facilities with the last significant changes being made in 1991 with passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

Although the Interstate System is free of tolls for the most part, Congress decided in 1956 to include some toll facilities in the System. Generally, these were major toll roads built or planned before Federal funding for construction of the Interstate System increased significantly in 1956. Inclusion of these toll roads in the Interstate System enhanced connectivity without having to build competing free routes in the same transportation corridors. Additionally, including these toll segments freed highway user tax revenues to develop other non-toll segments of the System sooner. Approximately 2,900 miles of toll facilities are included in the 46,730-mile System.

Currently, toll activities eligible for Federal-aid highway funding include:


Initial construction (except on the Interstate System) of toll highways, bridges, and tunnels, including approaches to these facilities.

Reconstructing, resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating work on existing toll facilities.

Reconstruction or replacement of free bridges or tunnels and conversion to toll facilities.

Reconstruction of a free highway (except on the Interstate System) and conversion to a toll facility.

Preliminary studies to determine the feasibility of the above toll construction activities.

If Federal-aid funds are used for construction of, or improvements to, a toll facility or the approach to a toll facility, or if a State plans to reconstruct and convert a free highway, bridge or tunnel previously constructed with Federal-aid highway funds to a toll facility, a toll agreement is required (See Title 23, United States Code, Section 129(a)(3)). The toll agreement is executed between the Federal Highway Administration, the State Department of Transportation, and the toll authority.

The toll agreement must require that all toll revenues are first used for any of the following: debt service, reasonable return on private investment, and operation and maintenance, including reconstructing, resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating work.

The agreement may also include a provision regarding toll revenues in excess of those needed for the required uses outlined above. This provision would allow these excess revenues to be used for highway and transit purposes authorized under Title 23 if the State certifies annually that the toll
facility is being adequately maintained."

Why? A legal condition of state funding is maintaining current capacity.

So what? The way things look right now, we're going to have to scare up more local money to pay for a tunnel, or even a replacement, than the state is paying in. Let's reject the strings-attached state money and spend a hell of a lot less local money on a surface boulevard. The legislature can divert the viaduct money to 520.

You want to know what's going to happen?

Nothing big so all you urban dreamers don't get all excited. There is no money. There is no political will. And there is no need. (The Viaduct scare is our local Democratic equivalent of the Iraq war.)

We'll repair the structure (as WSDOT has agreed is possible in response to the Gray/Twelker proposal.)

Not true, David. I think you misread the political cards. The state has no intention of throwing good money after bad. The retrofit idea props up the viaduct at a billion dollar cost. Then we are stuck with a deteriorating lemon which requires constant maintenence. Plus the retrofit numbers would be subject to the same construction inflation we just saw.

And at the end of the day you still have an unsafe structure with tiny lanes, no shoulders and frequent accidents.

The retrofit is only slightly less stupid than another elevated structure only because it would only keep an ugly mistake around for twenty years instead of one hundred.

Ginger, I understand what surface supporters are proposing. My take is more real-world politics. It's not inconceivable that the City could get the state to agree to a surface option.

But if they did, the state's price would likely be Aurora Avenue North on steroids--which would still likely sacrifice some of the current capacity.

You have a clear understanding of the need to convince the state to revisit capacity issues. But is anyone actually doing that?

I guess I'm just trying to see the glass half-full. People are working on challenging those assumptions at the state level. There's still quite a bit of time. I don't think that a mirror image of N. Seattle Aurora is a possibility. If, by some stroke of luck, we were able to get the folks in Olympia to stop thinking about the labor $ and start opening their eyes, there would be too many forces preventing an Aurora monstrosity.

Mr. X--thanks for the info (although the link would have been sufficient). The state law on tolls is very complicated (and evolving). If the toll was connected to a bond measure, under current law, it would need to go towards paying off the bond. However, I think there's wiggle room once it's not connected to the bond. Regardless, state law isn't sacrosanct. There's a whole host of people who make their living on changing it year after year.

Number 28 is a perfect example of why nothing will happen but minimal repairs.

If Sucher can predict the future, so can I: the State decides to do whatever, they tear the thing down - and then the money to do anything other than a surface street disappears immediately after the teardown is complete, since we've already proved we can live with it for several years.

uh. how 'bout putting a toll on it right now to determine what the demand elasticity is. You'd find out in about 3-4 months, instead of all this speculation.

tolls on the AWV should be part of system-wide dynamic tolling of all the limited access highways in the region. if system-wide, diversion is less of a factor. the WSDOT mega projects should not be planned in isolation. pricing may be needed during construction, not just after implementation. the main rationales for tolls should be to optimize flow and fund maintenance, not to fund construction. funding additional transit service would be second best solution to the equity issue. that is done on I-15 in San Diego. should be mega projects be scaled back and tolled?

...not on Federal facilities (such as I-5), unless the tolls are used to fund reconstruction. Theoretically, they could try to impose tolls on the parts of I-5 that are eventually going to be rebuilt, but they'd still have to redirect the funds to that project, and subsequently to maintenence.

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