When the 520 floating bridge opened in 1963, travelers had to stop at a toll booth on the east side of the bridge and fork over 35 cents (close to $3 in value today).
So much money came in that the toll was lowered to a quarter, and the tolls ended in 1979 after the bridge was paid for.
Fast forward about 30 years. The 520 bridge will (eventually) be replaced, and the legislature has appointed a three-person panel to suggest how much the toll should be, when it should start and what, exactly would be tolled.
Just what we need — another 520 study. A previous committee was appointed to decide the size and dimension of 520 in 1996. They still don’t know what its size and dimensions will be in 2008.
As for the tolls, the simple, clear, straightforward concept of collecting money to drive on the new bridge has fallen out of favor. Now in vogue is an attempt to expand the justification for road tolling in Washington. Back east, tolls are how they pay for their highway system. In Washington, we eschew tolls in place of high gas taxes (one of the highest in America). Some people want to add tolls and still keep gas taxes high. The list includes Paula Hammond, Governor Gregoire’s transportation director, whom I interviewed last week.
One of the options being considered by this three-person panel on which Ms. Hammond sits is collecting tolls on both 520 and I-90, perhaps as soon as 2010 – well before construction even begins on the new bridge. Up to now, tolls were almost exclusively used to help pay the cost of new roads that added value (less congestion, a quicker ride home) to the commuter.
If the legislature allows tolling on I-90, it would be for three new reasons. First, to “even out” traffic flows so I-90 doesn’t get clogged with too many cars escaping the 520 toll (which they didn’t do to pay for the original 520 in ’63).
Second, an I-90 toll would create a wider stream of money. So we would now allow tolling on one road to pay for another. And finally, social engineering. DOT at both the state and federal level wants to see if hitting people with a toll — a tax on driving — to get across the bridge will get more of them out of their cars.
They are also pondering tolling not just the bridges, but the roads leading to them. They have floated the idea of charging 40 and 80 cents for people who take 520 south of Bellevue Way, but exit on the 92nd street exit before the bridge. That will mean more cars clogging residential streets in Clyde Hill and Medina. Whose bright idea is that? If the tolls hit $5 roundtrip, that adds up to about $1,250 annually in tolls alone. Keep in mind that Ms. Hammond, Governor Gregoire’s rep on Sound Transit, also wants you to pay an additional half penny in sales taxes for expanded light rail.
I have said it before and I will say it once more. The same people who for decades have delivered higher taxes and longer commutes now want even higher taxes for brand new reasons, but they still won’t deliver less congestion. It is time to tell these people “no.” No new bridge, no new toll.
John Carlson is co-host of “The Commentators” on KVI talk radio, broadcasting from 3 to 6 p.m. weekday afternoons.