Budget woes may take a toll

On July 13, 1990, motorist Norm Hoffman forked over 25 cents for the privilege of crossing the Maple Street Bridge. No one since has paid a toll for using a public Washington highway or bridge. Those days will soon be over, and not just at the Tacoma Narrows.

Leaders of the Washington Legislature acknowledged Monday that, even with revenues from proposed gas tax increases, the state will not have enough money to fund mega-projects like a new Alaska Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle.

The higher gas taxes barely offset revenue losses caused by high-mileage automobiles.

Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Haugen, D-Seattle, said drivers can expect to pay a toll when the state can no longer avoid replacing the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. “It was toll bridge when it was built. It will be a toll bridge when it’s rebuilt,” she told a committee hearing Monday.

Washington and Oregon might also seek federal permission to impose a toll on a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River. The public-private partnership already building a second bridge at the Tacoma Narrows plans to charge $3 per crossing.

If those projects go forward, and tolls are imposed, it’s hard to believe legislators will not expect the same kind of local contribution if Spokane wants a North-South Freeway, with a price tag likely to exceed $1 billion. We will not be talking a mere two bits, either.

The only Spokane senator on the Transportation Committee, Republican Brad Benson, said tolls are clearly on the agenda of West Side lawmakers facing critical transportation problems. If tolls do indeed become part of the cost solution on the West Side, they will have little patience with Spokane-area residents unwilling to make the same kind of contribution.

“You can start to see the pattern,” Benson said. “I think there will be a toll on the North-South Freeway and everything else as soon as they can get it.”

Benson recalled his surprise when he first encountered tolls on a trip between San Diego and Cleveland. “It killed me,” he said.

Washington, which funded several past bridge projects with tolls, is not the only state revisiting that way of raising money.

A few years ago, California allowed a private developer to build a highway bypassing a traffic chokepoint in Orange County. And Bay Area drivers will pay $3 to use a new Bay Bridge when that project is finished. Four counties and four cities in the Denver area built a 55-mile highway looping around the city, and charge $10.25 for its use.

Drivers in the Northeast have the left arms of a Randy Johnson — and glares to match — from tossing change or passing greenbacks.

Still, the Association of Washington Business, for one, thinks tolls must be part of the solution to Washington’s transportation woes. President Don Brunell says the state erred when it allowed bridge tolls to lapse when the bonds that funded construction were paid off. Had those tolls remained in place, the state might have a substantial reserve available for maintenance or new construction.

“In other places, it seems to be working,” Brunell said, citing the Orange County and Denver projects.

Brunell said he wrote a column for the AWB newsletter advocating tolls to keep that option in front of lawmakers.

Benson, for one, is not sold, although he does not rule out tolls.

Tolls can be counterproductive, he said. Some Spokane drivers used to take Monroe Street just to bypass the Maple Street even when the toll was just 10 cents. Impose a toll on the North-South Freeway, and traffic will continue to use Division, defeating the freeway’s whole purpose.

Too many tolls around the state, he adds, will put a damper on business.

But Benson says he could accept tolls in a few circumstances, charging solo drivers to use commuter lanes, for example, or with the consent of local residents. It may come to that.

If Puget Sound-area lawmakers ask their constituents to pay tolls, Spokane may face a difficult choice: No toll, no freeway.

The empty toll plaza at the north end of the Maple Street Bridge probably says about all there is to say about which way that vote would go. Drivers can vote with their steering wheels as well as they can with a ballot.

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