Road and bridge tolls keep many elected officials awake at night.
They often inflame voters because they are costs motorists see while driving; whereas, a gas tax is hidden in the price of a gallon of fuel. Too often people filling up their cars ignore the stickers on the pumps which break down the state and federal taxes they are paying.
In Washington, the combined gas tax is now 62.9 cents a gallon while signs are posted from Tacoma to Bremerton tell you crossing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge costs between $5 and $7 depending upon how you pay.
For years, tolls have been political hot buttons. Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini (D) used them to pay for the Hood Canal and Evergreen Point floating bridges completed in the early 1960s. However, tolling fatigue was a reason Rosellini lost his bid for a third term in 1964.
Historically, our state’s voters oppose permanent bridge tolls. That opposition started in 1917 when the first bridge across the Columbia River connected Vancouver and Portland. The toll was a nickel and ended in 1929 when the bonds were retired.
Rosellini preferred permanent tolls but compromised and settled for the traditional system, which leaves no money for maintenance, expansion and eventual replacement. Voters don’t trust legislators who have a habit of robbing dedicated funds to balance the budget.
By contrast in the San Francisco Bay Area all major bridges are tolled. They have been part of the Bay Area transportation system since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. Tolls helped pay for the Bay Bridge replacement in 1989 when a 6.9 earthquake sent an upper section crashing down on a lower one.
In Texas, public-private partnership were formed to avoid ending tolls once construction costs were paid. The most notable project is a 41 mile tollway between Austin and San Antonio completed four years ago.
It is operated by SH 130 Concession Co. To get truckers to use it, the state initially rebated part of the $33.83 toll, but when state subsidy ended many truckers found other routes. Now the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; however, lawmakers are confident SH 130 Concessions will emerge successfully.
Texas lawmakers, like their counterparts in other states, wanted to cut down on congestion allowing people to shorten commute times and truckers expedite shipments from farms and factories to markets They boosted the speed limit to 85 miles per hour on the tollway. After all, time is money and costs matter to families and shippers.
By applying the San Francisco model, you pay regardless of which bridge you cross. In essence, drivers have no choice. That has been a problem for Washington lawmakers. They have nixed the idea of tolling the I-90 and SR 520 bridges to pay the replacement of the SR 520 connecting Seattle and Medina.
Correspondingly, tolling I-205 across the Columbia near the Portland International Airport to pay for the new I-5 bridge cutting through downtown Vancouver also is a tough sell.
While tolls are not a panacea, they are an important financing tool, especially today when gas tax revenues are inadequate to pay for maintaining our current highways and bridges.
Transportation leaders believe tolls are pertinent since the trend in paying for roads and bridges moves to user fees. You pay based on how much you drive regardless whether your vehicle is propelled by electricity, gas or diesel.
The key is to think differently. A good start would be to make tolls permanent and put the excess collections in a “locked box” which can only be used to repair, maintain, expand or replace the roads and bridges from which they are collected.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.