Toll among options for U.S. 2 trestle

In five to 10 years, anyone driving from Everett to Monroe on U.S. 2 might have to pay directly to do it.

That toll, however, could pay for a new trestle and a bypass around Monroe’s commercial development.

In 20 years, by 2030, drivers could be paying just to get onto I-5.

These are among the many possibilities suggested in two recent reports on the future of transportation in the state.

One study was completed by consultants for the state Legislature to look at transportation funding choices in light of an expected decline in revenue from the state’s gas tax.

The other is a draft of a long-term transportation plan for the state put together by the Puget Sound Regional Council, a regional planning agency. A final version of the plan, called T-2040, is not expected to be approved until this spring.

Each report suggests the use of other methods of raising money, in addition to tolls, to pay for roads, buses and trains.

These include high-occupancy toll lanes, or “HOT lanes,” in which drivers pay to drive in the carpool lane during rush hours; electronic tracking of total miles driven; excise taxes; weight taxes and more.

With more fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles on the road all the time, “most folks expect diminishing returns from fuel-tax revenues,” said Rick Olson, spokesman for the regional council. “Transportation planners are tying to sort out what can replace more traditional approaches to things like fuel taxes.”

At the same time, the need for road improvements will not diminish but increase, officials said.

The state Legislature, where the final decision on funding methods will rest, will likely consider the measures next year, said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee.

Lawmakers put together their budgets in odd-numbered years, with adjustments made in between.

The suggestion for using a toll to pay for improvements on U.S. 2 and the projection of all-toll freeways by 2030 were included in the plan by the regional council.

The council’s board of directors is made up of 32 elected officials from King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties. Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson is the chairman, while Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, county councilman Dave Somers and Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine also serve on the board.

Somers said that while he doesn’t specifically advocate a toll for U.S. 2, he wanted to make sure the highway was included in the plan. Most of the federal money that comes to Washington state for transportation flows through the council, based on the plans it has on the books.

“We wanted U.S. 2 improvements and a new trestle on the regional list (in the study),” Somers said. “It falls in that category of major projects, which there’s no way to pay for unless we consider tolling.”

A combination of tolls, federal, state or other funds could be used to pay for U.S. 2 improvements, Stephanson said.

“My expectation is that the state and particularly the federal government will step up and be a significant contributor to the expansion of U.S. 2.”

Dollar amounts that tolls could raise for any particular project are not included in either the regional council study or the one done for the Legislature.

No dollar amount has been estimated for a new trestle or Monroe bypass. A state study is currently assessing options for the U.S. 2 corridor between Snohomish and Everett and is expected to be finished in 2011. A draft is expected this fall.

Somers envisions a new trestle parallel to the current one. The state Legislature will need a specific project and a price tag before it makes any decision about funding for U.S. 2, Sen. Haugen said.

She’s not sold on the idea.

“I think tolling is not the answer for that,” she said. “Right now I don’t see us doing anything on U.S. 2. The state isn’t ready to go there yet.”

Regarding the regional council’s notion that all freeways in the region could be toll roads by 2030, Haugen said, “I doubt that.”

The legislative study outlines several scenarios of how much could be raised from some of the various other funding methods, but not from tolls because of too many uncertainties, said Kathy Scanlan, a partner in the Cedar River Group of Seattle, which conducted the study.

Each study suggests a phasing-in of tolling over a period of years. This would be done by use of HOT lanes, already in use on Highway 167 in the Kent valley.

The legislative study lists Highway 520, the Alaskan Way tunnel, I-405, Highway 167 and the bridge from Vancouver, Wash. to Portland as the first places where full tolling could be implemented first.

On Highway 167’s high-occupancy toll lanes, drivers are charged by the mile through the use of stickers attached to windshields that are read electronically, said Mike Cummings, a program manager for the regional council.

The fee is adjusted according to the congestion on the freeway at the time. The fee per mile is displayed on reader boards along the highway, Cummings said.

Similar methods could be used for other toll roads, using the miles-driven formula to assess taxes or fees on a broader scale, all electronically.

Assessing tolls by total miles driven could be phased in also, at a penny a mile by 2020 and 2 cents a mile by 2030, according to the regional council draft.

This will have to happen first on a federal or multi-state scale, officials said, because vehicles crossing state lines would not be charged for wear and tear on the roads.

Also, “there’s a lot of concerns about privacy and how would it work,” Scanlan said.

A majority of 1,200 people who responded to a recent regional council poll favored tolls to pay for roads.

“Nobody really would want to say I’d love to have tolls,” Cummings said. “But on the other hand we’re going to have to do something. The issue becomes how we do it.”

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