To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vaughn Palmer: Seattle, planning for new tunnel, takes critical look at idea that tolls should be a cash cow


By Vaughn Palmer, October 23, 2013

 Vaughn Palmer: Seattle, planning for new tunnel, takes critical look at idea that tolls should be a cash cow

The Pattullo Bridge (above) experienced a significant bump in traffic when the tolled Port Mann Bridge opened. In Seattle, an advisory committee investigating toll options for the new tunnel under the city has come up with a novel way to both raise money and prevent the diversion of too many motorists to untolled roads — lower the tolls.

VICTORIA — After two years of studying the options for tolling the new tunnel under Seattle, an advisory committee has reached a conclusion of more than passing interest to folks paying $3 tolls in Metro Vancouver.

The $3 rate is self-defeating, the committee concluded, because it prompts too many drivers to choose other routes, increasing congestion and reducing the number of paying customers.

Instead, the committee has pretty much settled on a discount price range of $1 (most times within a 24-hour period) to $1.25 (peak travel times only) as “the best balance between revenue generation and minimizing diversion.”

“Optimizing toll rates resulted in minimizing diversion or keeping more cars in the tunnel,” the committee stated in a presentation delivered late last month. “Tolling more time periods resulted in additional revenue.”

Though not the final recommendation — that will be determined next month — the low-budget scenario was the most promising of seven tolling regimes explored by the committee since it was appointed to study tolling on the Alaskan Way Replacement Project in the fall of 2011.

The process took two years because in appointing the committee, the city of Seattle and the state Department of Transportation assigned the 15 members to strike a genuine balancing act.

They were required to set the tolls at a level that would help pay a designated share of the project costs, plus for interest, maintenance, operations and the cost of collecting the tolls.

But they were also required to tackle the problem of traffic diversion. The city did not went toll-dodgers moving onto already congested streets, further snarling traffic and delaying transit services.

Not long into the process, committee members began to discover that the initial tolling scenarios were far too optimistic. The state at one point thought it could raise as much $400 million through tolls, which would have necessitated a levy in the $5 to $6 range, triggering massive diversions onto city streets.

Soon the revenue target was scaled down and the committee began to experiment with less ambitious scenarios, looking at staggered rates throughout the day, premiums at rush hour and a sliding scale for weekends.

The run-throughs by committee staff indicated that some drivers would divert even if the tolls were cut to 50 cents. But eventually the committee came up with the aforementioned scenario, with a flat $1 rate round the clock and a 25-per-cent premium (25 cents) during the morning and evening rush hours.

Some drivers would still escape to city streets. But the diversions were nothing like the 40 per cent of traffic that emerged from the $3 tolling scenario. And the impact could be mitigated with traffic control measures, improved passage for transit and the like.

The financing worked better too, as Mike Lindblom, transportation reporter for the Seattle Times, reported recently. After paying off the overhead, maintenance and operating costs, there would still be enough left over from the tolls to cover a $200-million contribution to the $3.3-billion project.
The scenario may be tweaked further in a final go-round next month, still well before the scheduled completion date for the project.

Bertha, the giant machine that is boring the tunnel, has only just begun chewing its way under the city. The project, aimed at replacing the antiquated Alaskan Way Viaduct on the city waterfront, won’t be completed until 2016.

By comparison, the B.C. Liberals set the $3 toll on the Port Mann crossing years before the project’s completion, via a public consultation that was dubious at best.

Moreover, neither the province nor TransLink, which imposed the $3 toll on the Golden Ears Bridge, would appear to have given much thought to the problem that the Washington state committee wrestled with for two years — namely, those self-defeating traffic diversions onto side streets and alternative crossings.

Washington state has also initiated another tolling experiment worth examining. Departing from the practice (here and elsewhere) that tolls are only placed on new roads and bridges, the state placed a toll on the existing Evergreen Point floating bridge across Lake Washington, to help finance $4.1 billion worth of improvements on other roads and bridges.

The tolls kicked in two years ago, provoking heavy diversions of traffic to the other floating bridge carrying Interstate 90. Traffic has since returned to 70 per cent of pre-tolling volumes, which is still a lot of diversions.

But the experiment is being watched elsewhere as a possible refutation of the theory that drivers will only tolerate tolls on new as opposed to existing infrastructure.

Not to say that the circumstances between the two jurisdictions are identical. But with the Massey Tunnel replacement likely to become a tolled crossing, and with TransLink pressured to replace the Pattullo Bridge with a tolled crossing, the time is ripe for the province and the region to revisit their tolling policies.

Metro Vancouver, emulating Seattle, needs its own independent advisory committee on tolling and traffic management to examine a few alternatives to the current arbitrary tolling regime.