Our regional transportation at a crossroads: 2 ways to go

Every once in awhile, an election comes along that decides not just the next four years but the next 20.

Every once in awhile, an election comes along that decides not just the next four years but the next 20.

When it comes to transportation, 2008 will be one of those years.

For a dozen years, voters have grown impatient as their taxes grow higher and their commutes grow longer. This year they will make a decision that takes them in one direction or the other for the next generation.

Last week’s column covered Dino Rossi’s transportation plan, which was released in mid-April. He would embark on the first real expansion of road building since the 1960s, adding lanes on heavily traveled roads, bridges and highways. Decisions would be driven by one clear principle: reducing traffic congestion.

The $15 billion plan would be paid by existing gas taxes, stopping the imposition of the sales tax on transportation projects, and using just under half the sales tax collected from the purchase of new and used vehicles to road projects. That would give the state general fund 2 to 3 percent less revenue than it would otherwise receive over a 10-year period.

A few days ago we got to see the progressive alternative to the Rossi Plan Tolls. Not just on new roads but virtually everywhere (Rossi would toll an expanded 520 bridge at about $1.50 upon completion).

The Puget Sound Regional Council released a study suggesting that congestion could be substantially reduced by tolling just about every road with a yellow line down the middle. People’s vehicular movements would be tracked by GPS and cellular technology. A toll account would require car owners to pre-pay into the account and have the tolls deducted from it.

The report, “Traffic Choices,” arranged for people in 275 households throughout the Puget Sound area pay tolls over an eight-month period. The people in the household were given between $600 and $3,000 in their tolling account, and were allowed to keep what they didn’t use over an eight-month period. Tolls ranged from zero in the middle of the night to 50 cents a mile on the freeway during rush hour. Sure enough, people changed their driving habits, and most made some money.

The study’s main author, Matthew Kitchen, says that if this concept were extended to all households, the commute from downtown Bellevue to Tacoma would be cut from one hour and 18 minutes to just 46 minutes. But the one-way toll to get there would be $13.41.

It would be a powerful inducement for people to get out of their cars. It also would cost the average commuter thousands of dollars per year beyond the gas taxes they already are paying.

“I have no doubt we’re going to go down this road,” says Aubrey Davis, former Chairman of the State Transportation Commission. “I just don’tThe problem is that the improvements would come long after the tolls started. And, even more buses doesn’t mean you’ll save time once you factor in walking from your house to the bus stop and then likely having to wait at a transit station for a connecting bus.

A final concern is the tracking system every vehicle would have to have installed to tally the tolls. It’s bad enough that people would have to give up their money to use freeways they’ve already paid for through taxes. Worse, they’d have to give up their privacy as well.