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Washington expected to raise, expand tolls on freeways over pandemic losses

I-405 express toll lanes in operation at Kirkland. (WSDOT/Flickr)

Tolls are expected to go up on several freeways this year, as the state deals with a significant loss of revenue related to the pandemic.

Puget Sound traffic on major routes is nearing return to pre-pandemic levels

The tolling revenue has fallen off so much over the last year that the state could be in jeopardy of not being able to pay its bills. It’s expected that tolls will go up on the SR 520 Bridge, the SR 99 Tunnel and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to ensure the state can meet its obligations. There are no plans, right now, to increase the minimum or maximum tolls on I-405 or SR 167, but the state is watching those corridors closely.

The potential toll increase scenarios should become public in late May or early June. They could be implemented as early as August, if the state goes forward with raising the rates.

So, how bad are the finances?

Tolling revenue across all tolled roads was off 44% between March 2020 and January 2021, which translates into missing the pre-COVID revenue forecast by $93 million.

The state revised the revenue forecast in November to reflect the impact of COVID on tolling, and those roads still failed to meet the expectations. Tolling revenue from November 2020 through January 2021 missed that new number by over 2%.

Tolling director Ed Barry said it isn’t really getting much better. The new February tolling numbers, out just this week, show revenues off over 8% from the November 2020 projections.

“It remains to be seen as we come out of the pandemic and people, perhaps, go back to work or do different things how the toll revenue might behave,” Barry told the Washington State Transportation Commission this week. “It’s still pretty difficult to tell exactly what the new normal will look like.”

Quickly going over the numbers from all the tolled facilities between March 2020 and January 2021: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge saw the smallest dip, coming in just 17% below the forecast; the 520 Bridge was off 54%; the 99 Tunnel was off 45%; the 167 HOT lanes were off 63%; and the I-405 Express Toll lanes were off 80%.

Barry said the volume just hasn’t returned to the I-405 corridor.

“The congestion has really not manifested itself to the degree that it drives up the dynamic toll rate,” Barry told the commission. “The average toll rates that we have been seeing up there have been quite a bit below the pre-pandemic levels.”

So what is the state going to do about this shortfall?

It is hoping to get some money from the Legislature to bridge the gap and, considering the new rosy revenue forecast, maybe that is a legitimate option. The toll increases could be eliminated if the Legislature puts more money into the transportation budget. It’s expected, I mentioned before, that tolls will go up on 520, 99, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge without legislative action.

The toll division is also moving out of its high-rent office in Pioneer Square, and moving into the building currently occupied by the Washington State Ferries. The Goldsmith Building is at 2nd Avenue South and South Jackson Street. It’s a beautiful building built in 1907, with a huge multi-story atrium in the middle. The ferries building is at 3rd Avenue and Broad Street and is about as utilitarian as you can get. The toll division expects to save 62% on rent, starting with the new fiscal year in July.

There is this interesting nugget about where the state could find the money to stay on track: On page 15 of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s 24-page 2021 tolling report, one of the options is to “explore the possibility of tolling existing HOV lanes on additional freeways to provide an infusion of revenues to support planned ETL projects, and to create a more reliable trip today on our freeways for transit, HOV’s and single occupant vehicles.”

That means potentially turning any current HOV lanes, like those on I-5 or I-90 for example, into toll lanes.

The Transportation Commission told me that conversion would also allow for more reliable trips for transit and for people who could buy into those lanes for a faster trip. Putting tolls on the existing HOV lanes would also eliminate the congestion in those HOV lanes.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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