One of the most significant contributors to the cost of the Columbia River Crossing project is the addition of light rail. Adding light rail would cost about a billion dollars, which represents nearly 30 percent of the project’s total cost. Yet, only 3 to 9 percent of people who cross the bridge would use it.
Deliberately increasing costs by 30 percent to serve less than 10 percent of bridge crossings (all of which are already served by inexpensive buses) creates unnecessary risk and establishes a very large gap between public costs and public benefits.
And then there is the question of funding the annual operating costs of light rail.
Local leaders want a sales tax increase to cover these ongoing expenses and voters may have a chance to decide whether this is a good idea.
Now, local leaders are considering another option that would bypass voters altogether: tolls.
Washington motorists have some modern experience with tolls, which have been recently implemented on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Highway 167. Transportation officials will also implement tolls on the Evergreen Point floating bridge across Lake Washington later this spring and a bill in Olympia proposes to implement express toll lanes on Interstate 405 east of Seattle.
People intuitively have positive feelings in support of public programs and services funded through user fees. Roadway tolls are no exception. When tolls are used to pay for a piece of infrastructure, such as a bridge or a highway, drivers naturally understand and generally support the added costs of performing the activity.
For the payer, tolls fund a visible product that results directly in a tangible benefit.
However, as Washington’s early experience with gas taxes illustrates and why voters ultimately approved the 18th Amendment in 1944, the public becomes less supportive when the fees are diverted to benefit other user groups. People naturally see the diversion of toll revenue to programs like light rail as unfair.
To their credit, legislative leaders in Olympia tried to address these fairness issues in 2008 by implementing a statewide tolling policy. Among other provisions, the policy statutorily defines how toll revenue can be used. According to the law, toll revenue is limited to operating costs, debt, and any other project or improvement on the tolled facility.
Not highway purpose
The policy also allows toll revenue to be used for “the operations of conveyances of people or goods.” This clause allows tolls, which are paid by motorists, to be used to fund an activity of a different user group, public transportation.
Public transportation is important, especially in dense urban areas, but the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a highway purpose.
Like gas taxes, tolls are paid by drivers and in fairness should be limited to highway purposes, as defined by the 18th Amendment.
The state already cannot keep pace with funding its current and future transportation needs, nor does it have enough money to fully fund a new bridge across the Columbia River.
Light rail, and public transit in general, is a local function with its own public tax support. And voters should have their choice about whether to expand these taxes to fund light-rail operations.
Any new transportation revenue source paid by motorists should be used for existing obligations like paying for the bridge; it should not be diverted to new commitments, such as light rail.
Tolls are paid by drivers, and this revenue should be used to benefit drivers. Transit crossings are already served by less expensive buses and subsidized through existing taxes approved by voters.
Light rail is redundant, does not carry enough people to benefit drivers and costs too much.
Motorists should not be forced to subsidize light rail across the bridge.
Michael Ennis is transportation director for Washington Policy Center (http://www.washingtonpolicy.org.)