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Budget funds study of corridor tolls

OLYMPIA – As state lawmakers seek dollars for the multibillion-dollar North Spokane Corridor project, they want to see if a Western Washington strategy – charging tolls – would make sense in Spokane.

Tucked deep in the 75-page House transportation budget approved Friday is a paragraph ordering transportation officials to research “the feasibility of administering tolls on the U.S. 395 North Spokane corridor.” The study would look at tolling all lanes and just truck lanes.

Local lawmakers say it won’t work, because there are too many alternatives.

Maybe so, said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. But she said the study, requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire, was a way of getting data as Olympia pushes Spokane leaders to come up with a significant part of the massive project’s cost.

“It’s to get the conversation started more than anything else, I think,” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane.

The House has also passed House Bill 3051, which would do two things relevant to Spokane:

•It would let local officials form a transportation improvement district and charge a sales tax of up to two-tenths of a cent, with at least part of that money going to a project like the North Spokane Corridor.

•To sweeten the pot, the bill would also take any sales and use taxes generated by the project itself – like the tax paid on the concrete – and steer them back into the project. Otherwise, such taxes would simply go into the state’s general fund. But getting this money requires raising at least $100 million locally for the project. Both the House budget and HB 3051 have yet to be approved by the state Senate or governor.

Wood and other local lawmakers say tolling the north-south freeway, a long-proposed highway link between U.S. 395 and Interstate 90, is probably impractical.

“It’s going to be a futile exercise,” Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards, said of the study. “If we want to push (drivers) over to 95 in Idaho, we can do that. This would do that in a hurry.”

The budget doesn’t specify how much the state Department of Transportation will spend on the study. Whatever it costs, Schindler said, the money should be spent on the project itself.

“Maybe it would have bought a little concrete,” she said.

Gone are the days, many lawmakers say, when the state could count on major infusions of federal money for bridges and roads. And the state budget, they say, can no longer shoulder the entire cost of numerous multibillion-dollar projects.

On the West Side, state lawmakers are increasingly looking to tolls. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge costs $1.75 to $3 per crossing. Lawmakers have also proposed tolling the 520 floating bridge and a new bridge over the Columbia River at Vancouver. Last weekend, the House approved a bill setting the standards for such tolls, with future bills expected to authorize tolls project by project.

But whether it’s tolls, an annual vehicle license tab fee, a local gas tax or part of the local sales tax, Wood said, the region must expect to shoulder a significant part of the cost.

“We need some kind of local money coming in,” Wood said.

Clibborn said the same thing. For transportation megaprojects, she said, “I think the future is going to be partnership with the locals.”

Local leaders are discussing a $20 license tab, but Wood said that by itself probably won’t be enough.

“Where that level is, how you get it, I don’t know,” he said. “But the governor has made it very plain that she is not going to support the megaproject-type stuff without local money coming in. It’s got to be done.”

Whatever happens, he said, it will involve a lot of public meetings and possibly a local vote.

“Come with ideas,” he said. “Don’t just say, ‘Hell, no, the state’s got to pay for it because we never get enough money.’ Nobody gets enough money.”

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