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Bonding against SR 167 tolls forces WSDOT to keep congestion

Tolls on 405. (Associated Press/Elaine Thompson)

The Washington State Department of Transportation Good To Go! tolls are like the opioid crisis, according to Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn) of the 31st Legislative District.

“They got a little taste of toll money and now they want to lengthen the tolls,” he said of WSDOT, which implemented the State Route 167 toll lanes in 2008 and the I-405 toll lanes in 2015.

The DOT’s newest plan, outlined in Senate Bill 5825, extends the State Route 167 toll lanes from Auburn down to the interchange with State Route 512 in Puyallup. This would effectively create what WSDOT calls a 40-mile express toll lane system from Puyallup to Lynnwood via 167 and 405, as the 405 tolls are currently being expanded from Bellevue to Renton.

RELATED: 405 toll lanes cheating drivers, traffic reporter Chris Sullivan explains

The bill also makes the 405 tolls, which were originally a two-year trial, permanent — despite the fact that the toll lanes have not met both original requirements for staying in place.

Fortunato’s biggest concern, however, is the state’s plan to bond against the toll revenue.

“You are bonding against a revenue stream — people driving in the toll lane,” he said to the Dori Monson Show. “Now what that means is that you can never change the capacity of that roadway, because now you are going to affect the revenue stream.”

Adding a general purpose lane on 167, for instance, would potentially take away drivers and therefore revenue from toll lanes, which would affect the state’s ability to pay back the bond. This means, he said, that WSDOT must actively work to keep the highway clogged, rather than working toward the opposite goal.

“They are financing transportation with congestion,” said Fortunato, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. “It is in their interest to have congestion, because now more people will be willing to drive in the toll lane.”

Toll revenue collection may not be the most efficient system anyway, he said. He pointed out that out of every toll dollar collected, 35 cents is needed just to keep the tolling system running.

Not to mention, he cannot abide by the principle of tolls — paying to use a road that is, in theory at least, maintained by the taxes Washington residents pay.

“I don’t like paying for something I already paid for,” he said.

Bleeding WA drivers dry

The expanded toll lanes won’t be the only time that drivers will feel the pinch in the near future. The gas tax revenue stream to fund roads is drying up because people are purchasing electric and fuel-efficient cars. To fill the gap, the state wants to impose a mileage tax.

Last year’s road usage pilot project was the first step in this direction.

“My solution is to say, ‘Take the existing sales tax from the sale of motor vehicles, and you use that, and put that into the motor vehicle account to build roads,'” Fortunato said. “Now, people are going to buy cars, they’re going to buy more fuel-efficient cars, they’re going to buy more expensive cars, electric cars. Now you have a revenue stream that goes up with inflation, and you don’t have to keep raising it every other week.”

And while House Bill 1110‘s low-carbon fuel standard would collect 16 cents on the gallon, this revenue would not go toward improving roads, but would instead essentially be “flushed down the toilet,” Fortunato said.

This session in Olympia has already done an incredibly rough number on taxpayers’ wallets, he said. He encourages everyone to call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 to speak out against SB 5825.

“It’s going to take us a decade to undo the damage that they have done, and I am afraid that they are going to grind this economy to a halt,” he said. “We’re flush with money because of the tax cuts and deregulation nationally, and we are imposing more taxes and more regulation on the people in this state.”

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