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Originally published Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

520: Toll first, build later

It is clear that expanding Highway 520 will require tolls and that these tolls will cause the number of cars using 520 facilities to go...

Special to The Times

It is clear that expanding Highway 520 will require tolls and that these tolls will cause the number of cars using 520 facilities to go down. But by how much?

The information the Washington State Department of Transportation currently uses to determine how different toll levels will affect traffic flows on 520 is based on a so-called value-of-time methodology. Drivers were never actually asked how much they would be willing to pay.

WSDOT's approach to estimating toll impacts is fragmentary, limited and derived from indirect sources. John Milton, WSDOT's Highway 520 project manager, has publicly acknowledged that the tolling analysis is not good enough to support a bond issue and will be improved.

Tolls can have a very large impact on traffic demand. A report in the respected Journal of Economic Perspectives (fall 2006), reported that a £10 daily toll to enter central London produced in one year a 34-percent reduction in the number of cars entering the congestion-charging zone and a 50-percent increase in bus ridership.

Although unreliable, WSDOT's value-of-time methodology results in a 520 demand curve, where traffic volumes at a $7 one-way toll (in 2014 prices) are only 40 percent of what they would be with a $2 toll (six out of every 10 vehicles would stop using 520 at the higher cost).

In addition to reducing the vehicle demand for Highway 520, tolls also solve 520's biggest problem — financing. A one-way toll of $5 per vehicle (in current dollars) would generate $2.5 billion over the next five years under the assumptions that an untolled corridor would generate 115,000 cars per day and a $5 tolled corridor would generate 85,000 cars per day (a traffic reduction of 30 percent); that toll revenues are placed in a trust fund that can be used only for 520 improvements; and that the trust fund earns a moderate 5 percent per year investment income. This $2.5 billion equals the financing shortfall the 520 project now faces.

The governor's recent report of findings about expansion of 520 establishes that the bridge has 13 to 18 years of life remaining, so a five-year period of toll collections would not jeopardize public safety. In addition, the toll would likely reduce usage on 520 by about a third, according to WSDOT estimates. Much of the corridor's congestion would be eliminated by demand management.

Serious consideration should be given to both imposing tolls immediately and delaying a decision on 520's preferred alternative for five years. This will allow us to accomplish the following:

• Generate toll revenue for a trust fund that will grow with interest income to help pay for a new 520;

• Conduct various tolling experiments to reliably determine how the users of 520 react to them, and;

• Explore roadway alternatives that meet the objections of the communities that surround the 520 corridor, since seven of the nine communities that surround 520 now oppose both alternatives WSDOT is proposing, which could jeopardize passage of the Regional Transportation Investment District financing proposal.

Theodore Lane a Roanoke resident, is an economist and traffic-noise-impact consultant. Bill Mundy a Madison Park resident, is a real-estate economic, market and valuation research consultant.

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