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Predicting the future: Tolling will start in your driveway

Imagine a future where all roads are tolled. Now the driver has to consider the value of each trip. (Washington State Department of Transportation file image)

In the not-too-distant future, tolls may be completely unavoidable in Western Washington.

That’s a prediction from former Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald.

RELATED: Former WSDOT secretary warns of I-5’s future

Imagine getting into your car in Des Moines to head to downtown Seattle. An app directs you to the cheapest or the fastest route and reserves you a spot on First Avenue. But it all costs something. That cost may vary depending on the day and time you plan your trip.

Now imagine a Swedish Hospital van picks up six people in your area, takes you all to your appointments, and then returns you home for a price.

“That’s the sort of power of technology we have not thought about in terms of congestion,” MacDonald told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “It goes way beyond when people say ‘I don’t like tolls.’ What about if you were buying something that you did like, which is the chance to get to where you want to go, the expectation of reliability, and the solution to the parking issue together?”

He calls it “soft tolling.”

MacDonald said mass tolling will force drivers to think about their errands and commutes in terms of value. For example, going to Virginia Mason on a weekday at 8:30 a.m. has high value because there are so many other people headed in the same direction at the same time. On a Saturday, that trip would be much cheaper.

The former WSDOT secretary says what’s even more powerful than buses and trains are things like the Microsoft Connector and Seattle Childrens’ van.

“Sometimes moving forward means looking back. And a lot of what we think of as the underdeveloped world, massive numbers of people get here and there on jitneys,” MacDonald said. “And they do it every day and we have, through technology, the possibility to reinvent that for a city like Seattle.

Dave Ross suggested that maybe Seattle should accept that growth isn’t always positive and cap its population. But MacDonald argued that won’t solve the problem if we’re all living further from where we work and play. In fact, the opposite is true. We must all accept that density is the solution.

“We have to live more compactly than we do today,” he said. “This is partly a question of being able to get around.”

MacDonald urged developers to stop building a subdivision on every single spec of land where forest now stands if we all want to be able to take our kids hiking or enjoy a beach.

“If you want to build subdivisions all the way to the top of the Cascades, all the way to Mount Vernon, all the way up and down I-5, you’re just going to compound this problem of too many people living too spread out and transportation will be one of the problems where it all comes apart,” MacDonald said.

He added that as more people move in, we can’t expect to keep doing what we’re doing now if we want to succeed.

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