Mercer Islanders need to redirect the argument against tolling I-90 away from themselves. Nobody in King County will ever feel sorry for anybody from Mercer Island. For decades, Mercer Island has been viewed as one of the rich spots around Puget Sound. Further, many of our fellow King County residents remember and resent the extra money spent on I-90 in the first place to preserve “our little oasis.”
So whining about having to pay tolls every time we go anywhere, and falling property values, will not win any hearts, minds or votes. There are, however, many great reasons not to toll the I-90 bridge. So let's not whine; let's argue the real case against tolls and create allies in this fight.
Transportation is a regional problem. Our transportation system comprises interstate highways, state highways, and numerous local and municipal byways. Many have bridges, some have tunnels — all are falling apart. Clearly, we need to fix them, and that takes money.
The Seattle area has conducted an interesting experiment over the past year or so. We tolled one of two parallel bridges (SR-520) and not the other (I-90). The expected happened! People who could avoided the tolls on 520 by either doing an end run around the north end of Lake Washington, or diverting south to the still-free I-90. No surprise!
Tolls put “pressure” on the system and the commuters who use it. Those commuters will always go where the “pressure,” i.e. the cost, is lowest. (It’s a law of physics; it’s why the wind blows!) If the bureaucrats succeed in tolling I-90, some traffic will continue to divert around the north and other traffic will start diverting around the south end of the lake, increasing the pressure on those parts of the un-tolled system. Nothing will have been done to address our fundamental and bigger problem — maintaining the entire system.
Tolling I-90 to pay for SR-520 does not address the other thousands of miles of roads in Western Washington that need major maintenance or replacement, which our state cannot currently afford.
The answer to financing our roads is obviously more taxes. I say this as a strong fiscal conservative, but one who is also realistic. I believe the best and most transparent way to collect the necessary taxes is through user fees. Tolls are clearly user fees, but they won’t do more than address two bridges (and maybe a tunnel under Seattle – but wait and see what pressure that puts on the system). Other forms of user fees are gas taxes, sales taxes, vehicle registration fees, and the recently proposed mileage fees.
Gas taxes are the ultimate user fee. The more you drive, the more gas you consume and the more tax you pay. The bigger and heavier your vehicle, the more damage you do to the road, but that heavier vehicle is also less efficient, so you consume more gas and you pay more taxes. Further, people know at the time when they buy gas, what it will cost including taxes, and they have the choice not to spend that money. Finally, the commercial and governmental infrastructure is already in place to collect gas taxes!
I believe two things need to be done relative to gas taxes. First, the gas taxes need to be raised to reasonable levels to pay for the road improvements — improvements to our roads, not just SR-520 and I-90, but all roads. Secondly, such gas taxes need to remain in a transportation trust fund that can only be used for transportation projects, as is currently guaranteed under the state constitution. In fact, we should be extremely wary of all other alternatives as they represent an attempt by politicians to raise a tax that they can use as they choose, not as we direct.
Sales taxes, which are another form of user fees, represent a particularly nefarious approach to raising the revenue we need to fix our roads. Sales taxes would raise revenue for sure and it would even “feel the same” at the pump — we just pay more for gas. Unfortunately, while specific gas taxes by state constitution are dedicated to transportations uses, sales taxes go to the general fund and could be used however politicians choose. Let’s not give the politicians this flexibility.
Vehicle registration fees are another form of user fee. Those of us with vehicles pay this user fee; those without vehicles don’t. Simple. There is an issue on the horizon related to electric vehicles. There aren’t enough around today to make a difference, but ultimately, it could be a problem if vehicles can use the roads without consuming gas and therefore are not contributing to maintenance via gas taxes. For the foreseeable future, we can address this ‘discrepancy’ through the vehicle registration fee. Electric and hybrid vehicles should pay a higher registration fee as their user fee. Again, the bureaucracy and infrastructure to collect these fees is already in place; we just need sensible decisions on what the increased fees should be.
Some municipalities and states have proposed mileage fees. This may appear as a good idea, but I think it has several major shortcomings. First, unlike gas taxes that are paid before the driver pays for the gas he or she uses, mileage fees could only be collected after drivers have driven many miles over many months. Many people simply won’t be able to pay the unexpected bills when they arrive. For many others, it will be a major, unexpected “hurt” to their already stretched budget. (Say what you will about financial planning, but these scenarios will happen!) Some proponents also propose GPS trackers to track mileage, but these will pose privacy issues that concern many. And finally, there is no infrastructure in place to implement a mileage fee tax, so we would need a new bureaucracy, new infrastructure and additional costs to implement this proposal. Let’s not go there.
It is time to get real. We must pay more taxes to maintain the roads and infrastructure we have and need. Those taxes need to be segregated and dedicated for transportation (mostly road) projects. Isolated approaches such as tolls on certain bridges don’t address the systemwide problems we have. We have the mechanisms in place in the form of gas taxes and registration fees so we don’t need another administration, and a new set of problems. Raise the gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and forget about tolls and mileage fees! This will treat everybody equally and fairly.