You gotta hand it to Ron Sims. If nothing else, the guy thinks big. We're having a roads and transit crisis around here. It's so bad that...

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You gotta hand it to Ron Sims. If nothing else, the guy thinks big.

We’re having a roads and transit crisis around here. It’s so bad that traffic jams are no longer the biggest problem. No, what’s causing a political meltdown is that our highways are crumbling. And we don’t have money to fix them.

Here’s how out of whack the price tags are with our means. This fall, Puget Sound voters will be asked to approve a $16 billion tax hike for roads and rail, the largest tax package ever put before us. Yet it still won’t raise enough cash to replace the most rickety structure of all, the 520 floating bridge.

Nor is it clear it will do all that much about the gridlock.

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It feels like an era is ending. The freeway era.

So says Sims. The King County executive has another of his intriguing, out-of-the-box ideas. You know, the kind that from time to time make him one of the most hated politicians in the state (remember his income-tax proposal?).

The idea is to turn all our freeways into payways.

There’s nothing new about tolls. But Sims is not talking about a couple of bucks for crossing a bridge. It’s a plan to toll most every mile of every major state and federal highway from Everett to south of Tacoma.

It’s just a concept, Sims says, but here’s how it could work. We’d all have computer chips in our cars to record time of day and lane miles traveled on Interstates 5, 405 and 90 (out to Issaquah), as well as parts of highways 99, 167, 509, 518 and 520. The gist is you’d pay $2 for a short rush-hour commute, with a max of $4 to $8 for longer drives, such as from Bothell to Tacoma. It’d be $1 for driving around in the middle of the night.

A new report prepared for Sims by UW traffic engineers and a Virginia-based consultant, Booz Allen, argues such a system could radically transform how we use and pay for our roadways.

Based on studies of similar tolls in Singapore and England, traffic would drop 20 percent or more, easing congestion, the report says. At the same time, the tolls would generate $36 billion over 20 years, money that could build and repair roads and transit lines “without statewide contributions or regressive sales-tax measures.”

It’s called “congestion pricing.” Those who use the highways pay for them. In return, those who pay get the benefit of driving on upgraded, less-clogged roads.

A downside is you have Big Brother logging your driving. Such tolls can also be brutal on the poor and middle class. If it were me, I’d lower these rates. And roll back some sales or gas taxes. And maybe make it free to ride all buses and light rail in the three-county region, as a bonus for not driving.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that tolls are political suicide. If there’s anything that’ll get the local blood boiling as much as that income tax, Sims has found it.

But let’s face it, what we’re doing now isn’t working. Not for drivers, taxpayers or the environment. We can’t tax and build our way out of this.

All Sims is saying is: Maybe we could toll our way out.

Yes, he’ll be hated for that. Or maybe we’ll finally understand there’s nothing free about these freeways anyway.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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