Washington whacks state transportation budget; OKs tolling bills

| 4/4/2008

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed a supplemental transportation budget bill. Two more measures approved by the governor set up a framework for collecting tolls in the state and authorizing tolls to help finance a new bridge over Lake Washington.

The new budget bill – HB2878 – whacks about $129 million from the current $7.5 billion two-year highway budget. Supporters said the change was needed because the state must cut roadwork and overhead by nearly $1.5 billion by 2025 to make up for rising costs and less state and federal tax support.

The plan routes money for major road and bridge projects and three new ferries.

It provides funding for concrete barriers on Interstate 5 near Marysville and an additional lane on I-5 near Maytown. U.S. Highway 2, the so-called “killer highway,” is slated to get $14 million for improvements.

Other projects in the budget include a high-occupancy toll lane project on state Route 167. The four-year pilot project will allow motorists driving solo to pay to use carpool lanes.

The broad policy bill – HB1773 – gives the Legislature authority to impose tolls on unspecified roads and bridges. Each toll project would require its own bill.

Local authorities would be prohibited from imposing tolls on state projects without permission from the Legislature.

Transportation leaders at the Capitol predict tolling will be more widespread in the state’s not-to-distant future. They cite struggles to get voter approval to fund massive roads and transit funding efforts through higher sales and vehicle taxes.

Critics said the state should spend the money it already collects more efficiently.

The new financing system is expected to help foot the bill for projects that include a new bridge over Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue. The state Route 520 floating bridge has a price tag of $4 billion, The Seattle Times reported.

The Washington State Transportation Commission will be responsible for following guidelines and requirements in determining toll rates. Also included in the bill is a provision for “variable tolls,” which would change constantly throughout the day to reflect traffic conditions.

Toll revenues would be earmarked solely for improvements, maintenance, enforcement and operation along the roadway.

Gregoire also signed her name to a bill – HB3096 – to use tolls to help pay for a new $4 billion floating bridge across Lake Washington. The state will pay about half the cost of the Route 520 replacement bridge linking Seattle and the Eastside. Federal and state funding would cover the rest.

A tolling implementation committee would be put together to propose toll rates to the Legislature. A new bridge isn’t expected to be open before 2014.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Washington in 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor