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Sen. Tim Sheldon: Gas taxes more efficient than vehicle tolls


With the new State Route 99 tunnel set to charge drivers who travel through it, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan looking into implementing congestion pricing in downtown Seattle, one state senator is hoping to nip the tolling trend in the bud with a bill that prohibits cities and counties from imposing vehicle tolls.

Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) of the 35th Legislative District pre-filed Senate Bill 5104 on Tuesday ahead of the new session. As per Sheldon’s bill, the Legislature alone — not individual local governments — would be able to enact vehicle tolls.

Durkan stated last spring that she wanted to see a downtown congestion pricing system in place before her term ends in 2021. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien had proposed vehicle tolls for downtown streets so that drivers will not clog Seattle’s core in an attempt to avoid the tunnel’s fees.

RELATED: Chris Sullivan says congestion pricing works in London, but not Seattle

Sheldon believes that some local government leaders — in particular, Durkan and the council — would like to toll every road in the region; he sees these future toll roads resembling the current WSDOT Good2Go toll systems on I-405, SR 167, and the SR 520 bridge.

“It’s not going to be tolling with a toll booth or throwing quarters in a basket, like on the East Coast,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “It’s going to be high-tech tolling … they want your dollars for a road that has already been constructed.”

For this reason, he hopes that Seattle legislators will throw their support behind the bill — though he doesn’t see that as likely.

“I think the Seattle legislators will say, ‘We don’t want to offend the mayor, we don’t want to offend the city council, they’re our friends,'” he said.

Sheldon is optimistic, however, that the bill will get a hearing. He encourages Washingtonians to contact their legislators and urge them to support SB 5104.

Concerns over toll roads

With the high-tech capabilities of future tolling systems, Sheldon worries that a vehicle transponder could record and ticket car owners for driving infractions, even if police do not catch them.

“What they’re trying to do is change the whole system of how you’re charged for your use of the roads,” he said.

In Sheldon’s view, the best way to charge drivers for the creation and upkeep of the roads they use is with a gasoline tax. He noted that the cost of implementing and collecting a gas tax is pennies per gallon.

“A gas tax, like we have, is the most efficient way to do it … when you start to go to these high-tech means, you get very, very expensive collections,” he said. “And the privacy concerns, of course, are astronomical. It’s a scary thing.”

Besides the privacy and inefficiency issues, Sheldon sees vehicle tolls as a very inequitable system that hurt low-income residents most of all. He said that he finds it ironic that the same politicians who claim to be the biggest advocates of the poor are also the biggest supporters of these tolls.

“These policies don’t help the low-income, they hurt them — they hurt them badly,” he said. “The term ‘Lexus Lane’ is coined because that’s a good way to describe how we’re going — the idea that if you can pay enough, you can go into Seattle, and if you can’t afford it, you can’t get in.”

He pointed out that businesses, especially small businesses, will need to raise their prices to compensate for the higher costs incurred by vehicle tolls if they need to drive in and out of Seattle to buy or sell products.

“The average people should be really concerned about this, because that’s who they’re coming after,” Sheldon said.

And it’s not just small businesses that will suffer, he said — low- and average-income people who depend on Seattle’s health care facilities for lifesaving medical treatment will be hurt by vehicle tolls.

“The cities are an asset to the rest of the state, because you have the port, you have the entertainment, you have these facilities for healthcare, for education,” he said. “Are we going to draw that bridge up again and not let people access some of these things? It’s just going the wrong way.”

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