CRC critics: Tolling issue similar to Highway 520 likely here

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The issue of drivers’ fleeing Interstate 5 in favor of Interstate 205 once tolling starts on the Columbia River Crossing has permeated conversation locally.

Study: Tolls would drive away 520 traffic

By Mike Lindblom

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge would cut traffic in half, according to a state financial study released Thursday.

Traffic next year would drop to 52,000 vehicles per day as drivers divert to Interstate 90, avoid trips or shift to transit, according to an “investment-grade” study by Wilbur Smith Associates, meant to assist in the future sale of construction bonds.

Vehicle trips wouldn’t rebound to the current levels of more than 100,000 a day until the year 2032, the study predicts.

While traffic would move faster, with fewer cars on the road, the state needs a certain level of traffic to generate enough tolls to help pay for a new six-lane bridge.

Despite a traffic drop-off, state Treasurer Jim McIntire is confident that tolling can support at least $1 billion in bonds for the $4.65 billion crossing, as the state Department of Transportation has assumed for years.

Tolls would exceed yearly debt payments by roughly $5 million, according to a new chart issued by McIntire’s office.

“This shows there’s no pie-in-the-sky assumptions,” said treasurer’s spokesman Chris McGann.

DOT spokesman Steve Pierce said he hasn’t heard of any “red flags” based on the report, which he called ultraconservative.

Construction contracts already have been awarded for the pontoons and for assembly of the floating bridge and deck on Lake Washington, to be finished by late 2014. But the Seattle portion, including a Montlake interchange, remains unfunded.

The state missed its April start date to launch tolls on the old bridge and is now aiming for December. An estimated $82 million in tolls would be collected in 2016, the report says.

Fran Conley, coordinator of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520, said the findings are at odds with earlier state predictions that showed less traffic diversion. “If there are going to be many fewer cars on the bridge for a long period of time, would people want to spend $4.6 billion in expanding it?”

The coalition last week sued to challenge the environmental statement by the Washington State Department of Transportation, which was approved last month by the Federal Highway Administration.

In his reply to the environmental statement, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn wrote in July that a $4 peak toll plus added transit would enable a less-intrusive four-lane bridge to improve mobility, compared to today.

In fact, one of the state’s goals is to reduce driving somewhat, through “congestion pricing” that rises at busier times of day.

Critics and outside consultants for the Oregon treasurer have blasted traffic models, saying expected traffic was overblown by faulty traffic models and the actual numbers crossing the bridge amounts to nearly $600 million less in tolling revenue than originally expected.

“The traffic numbers are critical to the project for two reasons: They are central to all the claims about the environmental impacts of the project and they are essential to the finance plan,” Portland economist and CRC critic Joe Cortright wrote Friday.

Cortright said it’s likely the CRC’s investment-grade analysis will show more diversion and lower toll revenue, just as the one for Seattle’s Highway 520 shows up to half of traffic moving from that span to Interstate 90.

But CRC staff on Friday reflected comments also made by the Washington state treasurer — investment-grade analyses are meant to be ultraconservative.

“Investors are looking at investment risks,” spokeswoman Anne Pressentin said. “By necessity, it’s very conservative; it’s what would happen with lowest amount of traffic.”

The CRC has an investment-grade analysis of its own planned for 2013, before toll bonds are issued, she said.

A 2009 tolling study, also used in the Final Environmental Impact Statement to be released this month, showed that tolls of $1 to $2.50 (in 2006 dollars) during peak hours would divert 13,000 trips in 2030, with 182,000 daily trips over I-5 and 216,000 daily trips over I-205. The FEIS can and should use higher traffic estimates than an investment-grade analysis so that the full possible environmental impact can be studied, Pressentin said.

But Cortright said those figures could create unrealistic expectations for revenue, as the Oregon treasurer’s report showed.

The tolling study does not include estimates for diversion after pre-completion tolling starts in 2014. The project has no plans to toll I-205.

“There would be some diversion to I-205,” Pressentin said. “We also know most people would continue to use I-5 because its their most efficient travel route.”