Bills to toll SR-520 surface in Legislature
By NAT LEVY
Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer
February 8, 2011 · Updated 5:03 PM
It may be a matter of weeks before motorists face tolls on the SR 520 bridge as two bills debuted Monday in Olympia to set the rates.
House Bill 1887 and Senate Bill 5700 were submitted with an emergency clause that will allow them – once signed by the governor – to take immediate effect to meet the Washington State Department of Transportation's goal of beginning the program in April.
The State Transportation Commission voted in favor of a set of variable toll rates Jan. 5 with peak rates of $3.50 per trip during the morning and evening commute hours. But the passage of Initiative 1053 last fall required the Legislature to have final say over all fee increases.
As the legislative process progresses, WSDOT continues putting in place the equipment for tolling. WSDOT Tolling Director Craig Stone said it will take 30 days to get everything operational. WSDOT hasn't been able to name an opening date thus far because the results of the Legislature remain unclear.
"We've been saying spring 2011 because we're still waiting on the Legislature to see how things will come together," he said.
State Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), one of the Senate Bill's sponsors, said the plan is to pass the bills by the end of the month. It still has to make it out of several committees, before going through the House and Senate.
"I think the hope is we will have this process done through the Senate and through the House and through the governor sometime before the end of February, so DOT has 30 days in which to inform the public and do all the due diligence needed to start tolling the first of April," King said.
The bill endured its first hearing in front of the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday, with all speakers in favor of tolling. Construction unions with unemployment between 30 and 50 percent urged the committee to move forward and put some of their men back to work. Representatives from WSDOT warned the commission that without the toll money to back bonds the project would have to be delayed, and the state would lose millions on cancelled contracts.
It remains unclear exactly how much revenue the tolls will produce, Stone said, though $1 billion of bond proceeds are projected to be repaid through tolls. The effectiveness of the tolls will shape future policy. Should tolls fall short of expectations, the bills contain authorizations for the Transportation Commission to raise rates to pay off bonds. State Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) said this would not extend beyond the amount of the project tolls are expected to pay for.
With toll revenue, the $4.65 billion project still faces a nearly $2 billion gap. King said the Legislature will not likely deal with the funding gap in this session, but nothing is certain.
Stone said the decisions on funding can be put off until 2014, consistent with an SR-520 work group's recommendation. Should no viable solution surface before that time, the discussion on tolling Interstate 90 will begin. Clibborn has also asked for information on several different types of tolling for I-90 in case regulation is needed if drivers spurn SR-520 for the free-to-cross I-90 bridge.
Clibborn added that the Legislature may go to the voters with a new revenue package in the next few years, part of which could go toward filling the funding gap.
"Existing gas tax is bonded for 25 years," she said. "We're tapped out. We could be putting part of that statewide package toward 520."
The Legislature has already dealt with tolling SR-520 once when it passed ESHB 2211 in April 2009 to authorize charging to pay for improvements. That bill passed the House 52-43 and 32-16 in the Senate, and called upon the Transportation Commission to set variable rates. Proponents of 1053 wanted the decision to come back to the Legislature so the decisions, and the accountability for those decisions, can be traced back to elected officials.
King said tolling represented the clearest option. Tolling has been used throughout the state to pay for bridges in the past.
"I think it's about the only solution we have considering the economic climate we're in," he said.
Toll rates on SR-520 would fluctuate based on the time of day, and the $3.50 peak price will apply to drivers who have an installed a Good-to-Go transponder transponder on their vehicle.
Those who don't have a transponder will have their license plate photographed and received a bill for driving across the bridge with an additional $1.50 charge. Those who initiate the extra payment receive a 50-cent break.
Toll prices on the weekend, a time when many infrequent users will cross the bridge, will decrease significantly. According to project documents, the cost will be $2.20 (during the 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. peak) for transponder users and $3.70 for the pay-by-mail option.
The decision features exemptions for emergency vehicles and transit, but not for any type of carpool. Tolls will not apply between 11 p.m. and 5 email@example.com or 425-453-4290.