Lawmakers contemplate tolling authority change

Lawmakers contemplate tolling authority change
As cities and counties look for ways to address congestion and decreasing revenues, a Senate bill would prohibit them from imposing tolls on local roads. Photo: freepik.com

As local cities and even counties consider ways to reduce congestion or improve revenue streams, one option is tolling city streets. It’s an idea the city of Seattle is already planning to implement, while other jurisdictions may consider a similar idea. While some transportation experts say that in theory congestion tolling is an ideal way to manage traffic, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers have introduced SB 5104 to remove that authority from local governments.

At a Jan. 30 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee, sponsor Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) argued that a proposal like Seattle’s would disproportionately affect lower-income earners who have to commute in and out of rural areas. He added that “it is an imposition on people to have tolling on city streets that have already been paid for.

“I’ve had some comments like ‘What that’s tinhorn legislator from Mason County trying to do to me in Seattle? This tinhorn senator is trying to prohibit tolls because they impact everybody. People in my district and up here…. go to Seattle for a lot of different educational opportunities, medical appointments, entertainment, you go for all kinds of business transactions,” he said.

Cosponsoring SB 5104 is Senate Ways and Means Chair Christine Rolfes (D-23), Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31), Republican Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9), and Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28).

Under current state law, local governments can impose tolls through taxing entities such as a transportation benefit districts and under certain conditions. However, they must obtain legislative approval if the toll is placed on a state route in their jurisdiction. Also, they would need approval from the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) if the commission concluded that the toll would impact a state facility. However, no proposal has been presented to the commission.

Sheldon argued that a toll like Seattle’s is “not throwing quarters in baskets. It’s an electronic tolling system. It’s cameras and other invasive devices. They catch everybody. To me it’s unfair, especially to low income people. Low income people have a tough time with tolls. Imposing tolls on Seattle city streets would be quite the burden, I think.”

However, the proposal was opposed by a variety of groups, including the Washington State Association of Counties. Managing Director Jane Wall told panel members that counties are receiving $240 million less annually than in 2008, $500 million when adjusted for inflation.

“We’re very worried about future revenues,” she said. “As we look toward the future and the electrification of our transportation grid there are…concerns that that motor vehicle tax will continue to decline. We just really need all the tools in our toolbox to anticipate how we’re going to pay for future road needs.”

WTSC Executive Director Reema Griffith suggested that the bill still allow tolling but clarify necessary authorization. “Make sure that the laws and the provisions for every jurisdiction or their franchise is clear that there would need to be some kind of review and approval if there’s some impact to state facilities and operations.”

Also opposed was Bryce Yadon with Transportation Choices Coalition. He told lawmakers that “holistically we look at this (tolling) in terms of finding options for local jurisdictions to address the needs on streets, on their sidewalks and other infrastructure needs that they have.”

However, Sen. Mike Padden (R-4) asked Yadon: “are you trying to exclude low income people from Seattle by putting tolls on that, or do you realize that could be an impact?”

Yadon replied: “We’re exploring how we can implement and offset and work with low-income tolling in Seattle. As an organization we’ve had long conversations on trying to find that path forward.”

Opposition also included the Washington Public Ports Association Senior Director Chris Herman, who told panel members that ports “are uniquely positioned to solve local problems, local issues that they’re having. “

Prior to Herman’s testimony, Sheldon said he was open to removing ports from the bill.

No further action is scheduled for SB 5104 at this time.

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