I am such a cheapskate I'll drive miles out of the way to beat the 520 bridge toll. I could have told the state what our front page reported Tuesday: that tolls on the Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle won't work.
I have learned these past few months that I am such a cheapskate I’ll drive miles out of the way to beat the new 520 bridge toll. I blame my parents for this.
Recently I found myself going south to the free bridge even though I was headed to Redmond. It plainly made far more sense to heed the advice of fellow columnist Ron Judd: “Suck it up and pay the lousy 520 toll, already.”
No. I won’t. Or rather I can’t. I guess it’s the miserly Midwesterner in me. If there’s a free alternative route — in this case Interstate 90 — some sort of parsimony principle instilled in me by my frugal parents all but wills me to go that way instead.
So I feel I could have told the state what our front page reported Tuesday: that tolls on the Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle won’t work.
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Actually what the story said is that the state has admitted tolling revenue on the planned tunnel will fall short by $200 million. They were off by half — meaning tens of thousands of drivers more will go around the tolls every day than predicted. That’s a lot of cheapskates!
They say this is no big deal for the tunnel budget, as the state found $200 million elsewhere. Now they should go the rest of the way and cancel the notion of tolling the downtown tunnel at all.
Tolls can be a fine tool to ease gridlock — as the giddy folks now careening 70 mph across the formerly clogged 520 demonstrate. Who knew a lousy three bucks would scare away nearly 40,000 drivers a day?
Tolls can also be good at raising money, when placed on bridges or tunnels where there’s no parallel, untolled route.
The planned Highway 99 tunnel fits none of this description. It will be the easiest toll ever to beat. The free I-5 is right next door.
Plus, tolling this particular tunnel is self-defeating. The only reason to build a tunnel in the first place is to lure cars underground so we don’t again trash the city’s waterfront. Tolls undermine its central purpose.
All of these points were made nine years ago in a 2003 memo by then-state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald. It was the state’s position then that tolling in the viaduct corridor alone made no sense.
“Tolls on a Viaduct replacement would generate little revenue,” MacDonald wrote back then. “Primarily because it would be too easy for drivers to avoid them by taking other routes.”
MacDonald left the Transportation Department in 2007. I called him Tuesday to ask: Hasn’t the state always known that tolling Highway 99 won’t work?
“By itself, yes,” he said. “You can’t toll 99 and not also toll I-5. With the right toll, you could make both of those roads work better. But doing 99 by itself won’t raise the money and would crap up all the other roads.”
So why are we still planning to do it? Politics. Years ago, state lawmakers shifted $400 million out of the Highway 99 budget. With the flimsy tolling plan, the numbers still came out even, on paper anyway. It was a classic case of fixing facts around the policy.
MacDonald says 520 tolling has worked, but that’s because I-90 had room to pick up the slack. There is no slack in I-5. If they toll 99, he says, they have to toll I-5 as well.
What would work even for cheapskates like me, he argues, is to set a low toll rate, but impose it on multiple, competing routes. Say a buck or two on I-5 and 99, as well as on both the 520 and I-90 bridges. You could raise the tolls if the roads became hopelessly jammed. But the idea is to make tolls both harder to beat and easier to take.
“This isn’t going to happen anytime soon,” MacDonald lamented.
Nope. So I figure I’ll keep driving around. You could call me stingy and irrational, and you’d be right. What’s interesting is how much company I have.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.