Opinion

Island Forum | Plans for tolling only SR-520 for bridge make sense

Judy Clibborn
Island Forum

The 2009 legislative session closed on Sunday — the end of a historic session dominated by our state’s major budget challenges. While the $9 billion projected shortfall in our operating budget (or “general fund,” as it is often referred to) has dominated headlines, our state actually has some good news amidst this bad-news economy: the transportation budget. Despite the economic downturn, the transportation budget is still able to forge ahead with unprecedented investments. As chair of the House Transportation Committee, I’m proud of the work we did in the legislature this year to prioritize our dollars, find efficiencies and take decisive action on our most gridlocked projects: the SR-520 bridge replacement, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement and state ferries.

Over the next two years, we will spend $7.5 billion to move forward with more than 400 projects across Washington. Together with $341 million in federal stimulus funds that we appropriated in February, our total transportation investment is the largest on record. This will not only keep commuters and freight moving, but will also create 46,000 jobs when our economy and our families need them most.

Some projects directly impact us living here in the 41st Legislative District. The most obvious is tolling to help finance the replacement for the vulnerable 520 bridge. The state has identified about $1.7 billion of funding, leaving the remainder to be financed by those people who actually use the bridge, mainly through tolls. As a first step, we passed House Bill 2211 this session, which authorizes early tolling on the existing 520 bridge.

This decision was not made in the dark, behind closed doors. The 2008 legislature developed a 520 Tolling Implementation Committee that conducted extensive traffic and financial analysis along with broad public involvement. Based on the insights gleaned from this process, I introduced HB 2211 to outline a common-sense, responsible tolling plan.

One idea absent from my policy is tolling the I-90 bridge right now. Many people suppose that by tolling only 520, we are inviting a massive traffic diversion to I-90. I understand the concern, but there are several good reasons why tolling only 520 right now makes the most sense.

First, the tolling committee worked with the state Department of Transportation to conduct extensive traffic modeling, and its research suggests just a 5 percent increase in peak-period travel over I-90 in a 520-only tolling scenario. Second, we face a fairness and accessibility issue if we toll I-90, as we Mercer Island residents have no other way to leave the Island without using I-90. We don’t have the ability, as other communities do, to adjust our route. Third, there is nothing preventing us from re-evaluating the 520-only policy after its inception. We will closely monitor and adjust as necessary. But right now, the best research suggests that a 520-only policy should work.

Other nearby projects provided for in transportation legislation this year include preparing to modify I-90 to accommodate light rail, continuing I-405 widening and designating a deep-bored tunnel to replace Seattle’s aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.

We are on the edge of Washington’s largest transportation construction season in history this summer, the fact of which we can all be proud. Over the 16-year horizon, we do face weakened fuel-tax revenue as cars become more fuel efficient and people curtail their driving habits, but in the near-term we have a balanced, responsible budget, and we are busy planning to meet future challenges. I encourage you to stay up-to-date and engaged as the discussion continues.

Judy Clibborn represents the 41st Legislative District and chairs the Transportation Committee in the Washington State House of Representatives.

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