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It costs too much to even collect tolls
The one thing taxpayers like less than having their taxes and fees increased is having them wasted. I’m told that the cost to collect $1 net in tolls is $.38, but the cost to collect $1 in sales taxes is less than one cent; tolling has to be the least efficient way of raising revenue. I appreciate a big expense in collecting 520 tolls is creating the infrastructure and the incremental costs of collecting the 520 tolls is much less, though still probably the most expensive way of raising revenue. There is also a fairness issue.
I-90 is an interstate highway directly serving businesses and individuals all the way to Boston; it was appropriate to use federal gas taxes to pay for it. 520 is a regional highway, focused on transportation to/from the UW; it is appropriate to charge direct users a toll for part of the funding. Since the purpose is to reduce congestion, it makes no sense to set the tolls so high that it operates under capacity, and thus increase congestion on alternate routes. The rest of the funding should come from a regional tax, reflecting the indirect benefit the region gets from this project, such as a local option sales tax.
The $1.4B sought from tolls is to pay for the expansion of 520 capacity between Montlake and I-5, or so the DOT told Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, the one portion of 520 that isn’t fully tolled; cars can travel for free if they get on 520 at Montlake headed for I-5, or if they get on 520 from I-5 and exit on Montlake. I firmly believe a lot of traffic diverted west to I-90 goes to I-5, then east on 520 to Montlake and the reverse. Not tolling 520 between Montlake and I-5 increases the traffic on I-90 and causes excess gas consumption. Tolling sensors could be placed on the west 520 on-ramp and east 520 off-ramp at Montlake. To toll any other road to pay for this section of 520 without tolling the users is punitive, ecologically unsound, and makes for short political careers.
The Chamber of Commerce was also told that additional funds would not be needed if the capacity of 520 between Montlake and I-5 was not increased. Ironically, tolling 520 to pay for increased capacity causes a reduction of traffic so that the expanded capacity is not needed!