Congestion-financed transportation projects

Congestion-financed transportation projects
The Washington legislature voted to authorize bonding of toll revenue generated on Interstate 405 and State Route 167. However, critics say it will disincentive any efforts to reduce congestion in those corridors in order to maintain the revenue streams.

The Washington legislature this weekend voted in favor of ESSB 5825 sponsored by Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44) to make the tolls on State Route 167 and Interstate 405 permanent and authorizes the issuance of bonds to be paid back with the toll revenue. The Senate approved the bill on April 25 in a 30-18, with the House voting 60-38 on April 27.

Supporters such as Hobbs argued on April 25 that the bill will allow the state to expedite work on transportation infrastructure projects such as the Puget Sound Gateway, rather than waiting for the necessary revenue to come in.

“Bonds are just simply a financing tool,” Hobbs said. “Nobody here buys a home with cash. You do a mortgage, right? You take out a loan.”

Taking a similar stance was Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25), one of the Republicans to vote in favor of the bill. “(When) I tell constituents that it is going to take 12 years to complete State Route 167…the reaction is always ‘Why is it going to take so long?’”

However, detractors such as Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) said that “we will basically be dooming everyone that drives on I-405 and State Route 167 to driving on those roads as they are constructed today for the next 25 years, because we will not be able to change that road to affect that toll revenue stream. In effect we are financing transportation with bonding toll revenue, so we are financing transportation with congestion.”

Under ESSB 5825, the legislature also authorizes the Washington State Department of Transportation to extend the 15-mile tolling system on the northern segment of I-405  south from Bellevue to Redmond where it intersects with State Route 167. Although the bill directs WSDOT to continue tracking the performance metrics of I-405, it removes a clause stating that the tolling system needs to generate self-sustaining revenue and meet those metrics in order to remain operational.  A total of $1 billion in bonds would be authorized for I-405, while $340 million in bonds is authorized for Puget Sound Gateway projects.

While debating a proposed amendment to include an off-ramp as part of the bonding authorization, Sen. Curtis King (R-14) warned colleagues that “the more we add, the more we have to bond; the more we bond, the higher the tolls. In a couple of years, we’ll come back here and everybody that has to use I-405…they’ll all be screaming at us because the tolls are so high. Just remember this night and how we’ve added and added and added, because that’s what we’re doing with this.”

In the House, an amendment was added to the bill that requires the toll rates for I-405, State Route 167, and the Puget Sound Gateway facilities be lowered once the bonds are paid off.

The sole Democrat to oppose the bill was Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11). Although he offered similar criticism of tolling as the Republicans, he added “if we could create our own public bank…then we would just be borrowing from ourselves and repaying those loans back to ourselves.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48) said “I don’t like that we’re bonding the tolls, either. But you know what? I haven’t heard anyone come up with a better solution for how to fund our transportation projects.”

However, Sen. John Braun (R-20) suggested the legislature instead use motor vehicle sales tax to pay for transportation projects. “We could drive that to our transportation budget. We could reduce our reliance on bonds. We could address the coming crisis when we can’t afford to pay our existing bonds. There are better answers, but we’re not having that discussion.”


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