Imagine getting a 25-cent credit on your Good to Go pass for using the new Highway 99 tunnel at peak times. Sounds small, but it would help fulfill the whole point of Bertha’s Boondoggle — which was to lure the cars underground.
Here’s a modest proposal for 2018: Seattle should become the first city in the nation to pay drivers to use a road.
Call it a negative toll. As far as I know it hasn’t been tried before, but it’s past time to get creative with our shiny new tunnel opening next year underneath downtown. Because if we don’t, we’re inviting an almost certain gridlockapocalypse.
“The tunnel is going to create a mess. The people are not ready. The facilities are not ready,” former state legislator Larry Seaquist predicted to a state commission last month.
At issue is the Highway 99 tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. You know the one. Bertha’s Boondoggle? The 1.8-mile tube is miraculously nearing completion after a 17-year odyssey. But the state is planning to undermine its entire purpose.
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Officials are plowing ahead with tolling the tunnel. In their defense they’re doing this only because state lawmakers ordered them to. Not because it makes a lick of sense.
The state has known that tolling here won’t work well since at least 2003, when it first studied the idea. The reason is that a major free highway, I-5, sits a stone’s throw away, along with multiple north-south surface streets.
“Early models indicate that this (traffic) diversion could have a significant negative impact on congestion on city streets and be specifically detrimental to transit travel times,” the Seattle City Council said last month in a budget memo. “This congestion also creates a negative impact to freight mobility.”
All of this is incredibly self-defeating. The only reason we went off on our quixotic Bertha trip in the first place was to get the cars underground, removing their noise and congestion from the city’s waterfront. Otherwise it would have been simpler to rebuild an elevated freeway.
You could make the case there hasn’t been a road in city history that we want cars and trucks to use more than this tunnel.
At a recent state transportation hearing, officials acknowledged the variable tolls will trigger an “oscillating” traffic jam outside the tunnel. Tolls go up for the morning and afternoon peaks, drivers like me divert, streets and I-5 clog, repeat, they predicted.
So why don’t we rethink this? Variable tolling is designed to price drivers out of certain roadways at peak times, to try to keep traffic moving faster (think of the $10 express-lane tolls on I-405, or the insane $40 tolls outside Washington, D.C.).
But with this tunnel we want exactly the opposite. We want to lure as many drivers underground as possible.
With as little as a 25-cent credit on their Good to Go passes during peak times, my fellow cheapskates would flock to it. If paying solo drivers offends Seattle’s green sensibilities, we could reward carpoolers instead. I know city officials are concerned about a couple thousand Sodo freight trucks barreling along downtown streets. Why not give trucks an inducement to go subterranean?
True, we’d have to come up with the lost revenue. We could keep positive tolling at nonpeak hours, to still raise some funds. But tolling is due to contribute just $13 million a year anyway. That’s a rounding error in the state’s $4.3 billion annual transportation budget (0.3 percent).
Consider West Seattle. It’s the most viaduct-dependent neighborhood, and it has never wanted this tunnel because it’s not as convenient to downtown and it kills their glorious Sound-view commute. Think of the goodwill if they at least got a little chit each day for all the trouble.
I know, I know — this is hardly the Seattle way. The City Council is looking instead at punishing drivers who divert from the tunnel, by also tolling the pre-tunnel exits or downtown streets.
Haven’t the citizens suffered enough from this endless project? If nothing else they’ve put up with 17 years of official overpromising, political squabbling and incompetence.
Time for some redress, a little something for the effort, the nation’s first negative toll. We can call it a reparations payment.