Puget Sound highway tolling goes from bad to worse

Washington state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn.
Washington state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn. Courtesy

I’m no fan of highway tolls to begin with, but it appears the state Department of Transportation may take the idea of tolling to a new low that would be a disaster for congestion-weary drivers. Legislation approved in the dark of night Thursday would do just that.

After a 21-month study of tolls – which are, in truth, a tax on a road you already paid for – transportation planners decided State Route 167 and Interstate 405 should be tolled permanently, even though doing so won’t ease congestion.

The third party collecting the toll will get a 30-percent cut, double the original projection. To make things worse for commuters, WSDOT officials recently revealed they altered tolling algorithms to allow more congestion and therefore boost toll-lane revenues.

As a recent News Tribune editorial noted, more tolling revenue is being billed as a way to support the sale of bonds to accelerate the long-needed Puget Sound Gateway project. But that prize could come at a steep cost, because bonding against toll revenue would tie our hands on any future congestion improvements.

WSDOT is heading down this path and there is no turning back. The Senate approved the enabling legislation, Senate Bill 5825, by just one vote.

Under this plan, only about half of your toll (tax) dollars will be available to fund the promised projects once you deduct the 30 percent for collection and 12 to 16 percent financing costs of the bonding. That is not the most responsible use of your tax dollars.

Also, once tolls are bonded, there’s no incentive to reduce congestion – because that that could reduce the revenue stream and affect the bond payoff. This scenario is exactly what some want to inflict on us when we’re just trying to get to work or take our kids to school.

Existing tolls are already approaching $10 during peak congestion in some places, but we all know that won't be enough.

Plans being considered would extend toll lanes to Puyallup. Under a worst-case scenario, if you chose to travel the entire 50-mile corridor to Lynnwood on SR-167 and I-405 at the maximum rate for each section (assuming all were at peak congestion at the same time), you could pay as much as $58 roundtrip to pay for projects further north along the corridor.

During the SB 5825 debate on the Senate floor, I urged colleagues to remember this phrase: “triple-backed bonds.” It means tolls first, transportation fund second, general fund third.

If tolls can’t cover the bonds, then the transportation fund has to. Since the reason they are proposing that we bond toll revenue to begin with is because there are no extra funds in the transportation budget, the bond funding will then take an unplanned hit on the state’s general fund, which pays for schools.

Since becoming a senator in 2017, I have sounded the alarm about fully funding our transportation system needs. Existing taxes can’t keep up with rising construction costs, especially when increased fuel efficiency and electric vehicles mean less gas tax collected.

Some of my colleagues are considering a road usage charge or mileage tax, but I say we are taxed enough already. That is why I introduced legislation to fund transportation projects using dollars already sent to Olympia as sales tax on motor-vehicle purchases.

This revenue source will exist as long as people buy vehicles, no matter what and how much fuel they use, and will keep pace with inflation and vehicle prices. Unfortunately, my idea has been ignored.

Congestion resulting from this marriage of tolling and bonding will hurt the economy, your livelihoods, families and finances.

Maybe it will finally prompt more thoughtful discussions in the Legislature about transportation financing, before this regressive scheme is imposed elsewhere around the state.

Sen. Phil Fortunato is an Auburn Republican representing the 31st Legislative District. Reach him at phil.fortunato@leg.wa.gov