Harmsworth: Fed up with U.S. 2 trestle? Wait ‘til it’s tolled

Imposing tolls to fund a trestle project will place an unfair economic burden on area residents.

By Mark Harmsworth

For The Herald

For many living in Snohomish County you only have to say the word “trestle” to make a good day turn bad. It has been the misery of many commuters’ lives that travel from Lake Stevens, Snohomish and Monroe for the past 25 years.

The U.S. 2 trestle originally opened in early 1936 and has had new lanes added twice, the latest being an eastbound portion in 2001. It’s one of the only ways to get from east to west in Snohomish County and for residents of Lake Stevens, the best way out of town.

Now it’s becoming the subject of controversy again with the latest round of improvements being pushed by the Legislature.

When plans for adding lanes were announced last year, which included a tolling option of rates over $5 one way, the public outcry began. An online petition started, and 10,000 people expressed their opposition to the tolling funding proposal. Proponents of the tolling option said the rates would never go that high. Others disagreed and for good reason.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Anyone who drives the I-405 express toll lanes will tell you that is how it started when the lanes were being proposed a few years ago. The state Department of Transportation originally said the toll would rarely go above $3 but now we see four out of five days where the toll hits $10 one way. The Transportation Department claims the average toll is much lower, but for those drivers who do not have a choice about when they must be at work, the toll can be much higher.

Congestion-based toll lanes rely on traffic congestion in order to work. Without congestion nobody would want to pay to use the toll lanes and no tax revenue would be generated for the state. By their nature, toll lanes require some to sit in traffic while others speed on by. Tolls must increase to keep the lanes clear when things get busy during the commute hours.

In Washington D.C., they took this one step further when the toll rate couldn’t go high enough to keep things moving. The leaders there decided that removing the cap on the tolls would be the solution, and so in late 2017 they made the change.

The result? Tolls soared to $44 for a one-way, 10-mile trip. The Virginia Transportation Department, in a scramble to put a spin on the increases, said this was a peak rate and the average round trip was still only $14.50. Tell that to the poor motorist paying to get to work each day. That’s close to $4,000 a year.

And so the story appears to be repeating itself with the U.S. 2 trestle.

The favored option under discussion in the Legislature is an additional two lanes (both tolled) in the westbound direction at a cost of $1.4 billion. Unlike I-405, however, there will be no requirement to meet 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time, almost guaranteeing sky-high tolls.

This will not sit well with the residents having to travel the trestle. It will drive up the cost for local businesses and for many, the cost of several trips a day will be enough to make them move out of the area.

There are plenty of other options available to state and local lawmakers to fund the replacement of the trestle. These include voter-approved transportation benefit districts, federal assistance and public/private partnerships. Plus, reforms of state transportation policy would go a long way to reduce the overall costs. We can even consider an additional east-west route further south off the end of Highway 526 and spread the traffic load across the region.

Let’s hope some good transportation ideas come out of Olympia this year to make the word “trestle” a little less depressing.

Mark Harmsworth is a research fellow with the Washington Policy Center and a former state representative serving the 44th Legislative District.

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