Regional study puts toll pros and cons on the table

A recent editorial in the Auburn Reporter might have left some readers with the impression that high-cost tolls were being proposed in our region with no thought toward diversion to local streets, the real costs to commuters or concern for personal privacy at a time when technology often leap frogs public policies designed to protect it.

A recent editorial in the Auburn Reporter might have left some readers with the impression that high-cost tolls were being proposed in our region with no thought toward diversion to local streets, the real costs to commuters or concern for personal privacy at a time when technology often leap frogs public policies designed to protect it.

As president of the Puget Sound Regional Council, I can assure you that no one I know at the PSRC is proposing anything like that. Our recent “Traffic Choices” study took a hard look at the impacts to people and our commutes if tolls were placed on major routes. The intent was to report on the costs and benefits – the pluses and minuses – to inform policy makers, planners and citizens.

Among the findings:

The technology required to operate a tolling system is available and reliable, even though many technology quirks must be addressed before any real life application.

Study participants made small adjustments in travel because of tolls that varied by time of day. When added up, the study demonstrated that the combined impact of small changes could have a major impact on traffic relief.

Clear costs and benefits matter and raise awareness. While the benefits can include a 40-percent reduction in the time it takes to get from Bellevue to Tacoma in the peak afternoon commute, the cost of experimental rates, $12.43, is way too high. Real life tolls must be grounded in everyday reality.

A system of tolls could raise roughly $3 billion per year, roughly what we all pay in taxes for the regional system today. The study suggests that tolling systems could replace or reduce current taxes. That’s happening in the Netherlands, where the government has committed to a tolling system with no net growth in taxes. Here, my sense is that overcoming cynicism about whether government would ever eliminate or replace a tax would be a significant hurdle.

Addressing the fairness of tolling and establishing reasonable protections for personal privacy would need to happen before people would accept tolling technologies.

Congress is mindful that current gas tax-based funding won’t keep the nation moving over the long haul.The study was funded by a federal program to explore innovative approaches based on market mechanisms – to inform a policy debate already underway with facts and better plan for the future.

The study is already part of that national dialogue and also has informed policies under consideration in other parts of the world. In our regional study data is already being used to evaluate tolling systems on the 520 bridge and alternatives for long-range plans.

My sense is that our region will be well served by this work because it clearly highlights both the costs and benefits in real life terms meaningful to planners, and also to the people they serve.

Sue Singer is the Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Auburn and president of the Puget Sound Regional Council.

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