As a gesture of goodwill, the state could lower tolls on the 520 bridge next week
Starting tonight, three westbound lanes of Interstate 90 across Lake Washington will be closed for bridge construction. Despite pleas from the public, state officials are pressing forward with their plan to impose fully-priced tolls on those hit hardest by the road closure. The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), the agency responsible for tolling in the region, said they cannot exempt the public from paying tolls on SR-520 during the I-90 construction project, because it needs the $1.3 million in revenue to pay back debt.
While obviously we must avoid default, the state could lessen the burden on travelers by temporarily reducing tolls on the bridge. The diversion of traffic away from I-90 and onto SR-520 could dramatically boost traffic on the 520 floating bridge, allowing users to pay less and still provide the $1.3 million in toll revenues the Commission requires.
Below are my back-of-the-envelope calculations on three possible options the WSTC could take:
- The Commission could charge fully-priced tolls next week and collect $1.6 million: Prior to imposing tolls on SR-520, the westbound lanes averaged 330,995 trips per week. After tolling, trips on westbound SR-520 reached 224,735 last year, a 32% reduction from 2011 levels.
If the westbound lanes reach pre-tolling traffic levels next week the state will collect over $1.6 million in tolls (based on the June 2014 forecast of $2.99 average toll), assuming eastbound trips remain at the current levels. That equates to $319,000 in additional toll revenue the state didn’t budget for.
- The Commission could provide toll relief for all 520 traffic: Based on higher traffic (assuming westbound 520 meets its pre-toll levels of traffic) if the WSTC wanted to lower the tolls and still meet their $1.3 million toll requirement, they could lower the average toll imposed on all drivers by $0.59.
- The Commission could provide toll relief for 520 Westbound travelers only: If the WSTC wanted to ease the burden on westbound travelers alone, they could lower the average toll imposed to $2.03 per trip, saving the average toll payer nearly a dollar when going westbound.
It’s understandable the public is upset. Earlier this year, taxpayers heard that an additional $170 million was needed to keep the SR-520 project afloat because of further cost overruns. In response, lawmakers increased debt by $110 million, the bulk of which is to fall on toll payers. To some, it seems unfair that the public is asked to pay over one hundred million dollars more than they thought, but can’t get a week’s worth of toll relief when times get tough.
Lowering the tolls would be seen as a gesture of goodwill towards the traveling, and toll paying, public. Instead of hardening their positions during this unfortunate situation, state officials should work with the public to get through the rough week ahead.