Wednesday, August 3, 2005 at 11:56 pm by Darryl
About a month ago, I had the chance to visit with Washington State Senator Ed Murray, who represents Seattle (43rd district) and is the Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. I asked him about possible legislative responses if initiative 912 (rollback of the gas tax increase) passes next fall.
One possibility is to change the laws so that transportation tax dollars are only spent in the counties in which the revenue is generated. This balkanization of Washington’s highway tax dollars is very sad. Nevertheless, I will support whatever initiatives, referenda, or legislation makes this happen as a response to the passage of I912. The needs for highway safety improvements and replacement of end-of-life structures are just to great to continue ignoring the problem. If central and eastern Washingtonians object to road improvements, so be it.
I greatly prefer a safe and efficient highway system, even if it costs me a few hundred dollars a year in taxes to get it. Come to think of it, I like a safe and reliable power grid, high-quality sanitary sewer and water systems, good schools and a top-ranked University, effective judicial system, operational prison system, informed public health and social services systems, effective police services, ample fire and rescue capabilities, abundant State parks, and careful management of the natural resources of the State. It is worth thousands of dollars a year to me for these things. . . . But, I digress.
One of the possibilities that Senator Murray mentioned was the use of tolls around the State, with the option of using electronic payment. Yuck. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and was a frequent user of the Illinois toll roads. Furthermore, as a graduate student, I frequently drove the Indiana and Ohio toll roads traveling from the east coast back to my family in Chicago and Madison.
I absolutely hate tolls! They waste gas, add huge bottlenecks during peak travel times, waste time, and result in numerous traffic accidents as cars decelerate from 80 MPH down to 0 MPH and back up to 80 MPH again. Tollbooths add to congestion problems, and require additional staffing. I though I could never accept such a solution.
Several days ago, while visiting my father, who lives in a town outside of Chicago, I decided to learn a little more about the electronic toll payment system used in Illinois. The I-PASS system works by placing a device in your car that communicates with toll equipment as you drive by. Each time you pass through a tollbooth money is deducted from your account to pay the toll.
It takes about $60 to get started on the I-PASS system, with an initial $20 deposit and $40 added to your account. The electronic I-PASS devices can be purchased at grocery stores! When you need to add money to your device, you send a check in or do an online credit card transaction, and the next time you go through a tollbooth additional money appears on your I-PASS device. Alternatively, you can have your I-PASS account automatically replenished from your credit card whenever the amount drops below some value.
Of course, there is still a need for money collection and tollbooth staffing, since many visitors or infrequent users will not have the electronic pay device installed. Early on, the electronic tolls cost the same as the cash tolls. In a bit of arm-twisting, the State of Illinois has increased the cash price while the electronic price has remained the same. This makes good sense. It cost money to staff tollbooths.
I still dislike tolls, but I admit that the techno-geek in me is impressed by the I-PASS system. Much of the time, the system seems to be efficient and painless. Hell, I can envision more quickly paying for ferry rides this way. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity today to travel Interstate 90 from Chicago to Rockford during rush hour. The toll plazas nearest the city were backed up for 1/4 mile or more, and every traveler was delayed. The congestion and backups were directly caused by the tollbooths. Imagine the kind of problems we would see from tollbooths on SR520, the Alaska Way viaduct or Interstate 5. It is rather depressing to think about, really.
Here are some other disadvantages. The electronic device is one more valuable for someone to steal from my car. How does one secure the device in a convertible, anyway? If stretches of highway are converted into toll roads, the number of on-ramps and off-ramps is typically limited to avoid needing equipment and toll-booth staffing. In some sense, a whole new bureaucracy is added to state government for toll collection, violation handling, etc. My least favorite thing about toll booths is the increase in risk of accidents. It means that in an effort to fund traffic and safety improvements, we add new dangers to our highways. It seems silly.
I still am unhappy about the prospect of tolls, but I will grudgingly accept it as an alternative to an erosion of our highway system (particularly in King County). There are two things, however, that I demand, and will fight, tooth and nail, for.
First, I don’t want the toll system to be a cash cow for the rest of the state transportation system. Forget about it! If we have tolls on the SR520 floating bridge, it should be used for SR520.
The second thing is a long-time pet peeve of mine. If there is construction on the section of road for which the toll is being collected, don’t you dare charge me full toll. When I pay to use a section of toll road, I expect a premium product. If it is not in premium condition then don’t charge me. Period!