Seattle tunnel tolls need to be kept low so drivers don't avoid using it, officials say

In this 2013 photo made with a fish-eye wide-angle lens, "Bertha," the massive tunnel-boring machine, is shown ready to begin drilling the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct, a double deck highway along the downtown Seattle waterfront.
In this 2013 photo made with a fish-eye wide-angle lens, "Bertha," the massive tunnel-boring machine, is shown ready to begin drilling the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct, a double deck highway along the downtown Seattle waterfront. AP file photo

State transportation commissioners are intent on charging the lowest possible tolls for the Highway 99 tunnel, so motorists won’t be tempted to divert onto busy downtown Seattle streets.

One leading option would charge four rates that range from $1 on weekends and $1.50 at morning peaks to $2.25 each direction during afternoon rush hour. After the first two years, tolls would increase 3 percent per year from 2021 to 2025.

If making the most money were the sole object, the state could easily double or triple these rates, the number-crunchers say. A few miles away, thousands of drivers pay express-lane tolls as high as $10 to save 20 to 25 minutes along I-405.

Instead, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is girding for the so-called “period of maximum constraint” from 2019 to 2021, when state convention center expansion, demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and strained transit capacity will make some of the nation’s worst traffic snarls even more difficult.

WSTC members decided Wednesday to take three toll scenarios to public hearings this summer, before members choose the final toll rates this fall. Tunnel trips will be free for several months after the 1.7-mile tube opens sometime this fall. State lawmakers delegated toll-rate powers to the commission, which consists of seven volunteers appointed by Washington’s governor.

All three toll options show a range of $1 to $2.25 — less than the $2.50 rate estimated in fiscal studies last year. But two scenarios call for more rates at times like 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., or 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., charging an extra quarter as traffic normally begins to thicken. These so-called “shoulder of the peak” tolls would also bring in more dollars that could be saved for tunnel repairs.

Commissioners worried Wednesday about fluctuating rates.

“I think that is going to get the public frustrated,” said Commissioner Joe Tortorelli of Spokane County.

On the other hand, the Highway 520 floating toll bridge charges five toll rates that alternate through 11 time periods per weekday, ranging from $1.25 to $4.30, with minimal controversy. Vehicle owners without Good-to-Go windshield transponders usually pay by mail for an extra $2 fee.

Commissioner Debbie Young of San Juan County urged the group to keep tolls simple, for the sake of occasional users who aren’t familiar with urban commuter tolls.

Tolls must repay $200 million in construction debt, a fraction of the $3.2 billion total to build the world-record 57 1/3-foot diameter tunnel, its approach ramps and a new waterfront boulevard, and to demolish the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The tolls also have to cover tunnel operating costs previously pegged at $6.5 million a year and maybe fund a $225 million savings account for long-term repairs and replacement parts.

“You don’t have a debt-service problem, you have an operations and an R & R [repair and replacement] problem,” warned Jason Richter, deputy state treasurer, at a Tuesday briefing.

It’s unclear yet if lawmakers will actually force drivers to cough up the extra quarter-billion dollars — which didn’t emerge in public debate or even the toll technical studies until 2018. If they do, initial tolls would still be kept low, but increase in future years, to keep the tunnel from going into the red after 2029, the WSTC charts suggest.

Technically speaking, the state isn’t actually using toll money to back the $200 million debt. Instead, the bonds are underwritten by more reliable gas-tax revenues, and if that fails, the general credit of the state.

Toll income will reimburse the gas-tax funds. Otherwise, tunnel bonds would carry far higher interest rates, barely a step above junk bonds.

The treasurer’s office insists that toll income exceeds debt payments by 30 percent, to protect against any financial failure that would suck dollars from other statewide highway projects.

Originally the Legislature in 2009 required the tunnel to raise $400 million for construction debt through tolls — a penalty of sorts for Seattle demanding a premium-cost tunnel. Members reluctantly slashed the goal in 2012 to $200 million when state transportation managers realized tolls would have to exceed $4 to raise $400 million plus maintenance. Tolls that high would divert far more drivers from the tunnel and onto city streets.

“We’re relying on toll projections on an untested tunnel,” Richter said Tuesday. “The goal here is to try to make everybody a winner, get the tunnel financed … and have a humble approach, to protect other projects in the state.”

Highway 99 tolls

Here is one of three options for tunnel toll rates, paid in both directions, for 2019-21.

• 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. — $1

• 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. — $1.25

• 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. — $1.50

• 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — $1.25

• 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. — $2.25

• 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. — $1.25

• Weekends — $1

Source: Washington State Transportation Commission