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January 20, 2012 at 4:41 PM

GAO: 520 bridge tolls could create "equity issues"

A new report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, warns that new-generation congestion pricing schemes, including the new Highway 520 floating bridge tolls, are likely to cause “equity issues” that haven’t yet been closely examined.

The federal report points out the goal of tackling congestion, which costs Americans $200 billion each year.  The new toll systems in several cities charge more at busy time and less and off-peak times, to spread demand more evenly throughout the day. Other goals include reducing overall trips, raising money for highway work, and nudging more people onto transit.

The GAO is concerned about fairness when low-income people can’t afford a peak toll, of up to $5 each way for people without a state-issued pass. (The rate is $3.50 for those who have a Good to Go pass, and less at off-peak hours.) Geographic equity may suffer if drivers along other highways face more congestion because of diverting traffic, the GAO says.

Traffic around Highway 520 has yet to settle into a pattern because of holidays and a this week’s snowstorm, but early reports show significant diversion and increased congestion on nearby I-90.

The GAO also is looking at toll projects in Minneapolis, San Diego, Orange County, Calif., Houston, Miami, and Fort Myers, Fla., with a focus on projects that receive federal support. The U.S. Department of Transportation encourages states to experiment with variable tolls, to reduce traffic jams.

The report also mentions that drivers of all incomes use the Highway 167 high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes southeast of Seattle, but high income drivers use it the most. Washington tolling spokeswoman Patricia Michaud replied the 167 HOT lanes benefit everybody by allowing some single-occupancy cars to move left, without slowing transit. “They improve the speed of the general purpose lanes,” she said.

The 520 tolling just started Dec. 29, and GAO says it will keep tracking how that goes. The report has this to say:

Because this is the first project to toll a previously untolled bridge and there are parallel alternative routes, traffic diversion may become a concern. According to traffic models from the area’s transportation planning council, traffic could increase on the parallel Interstate [90] route by 5 to 8 percent and on an alternative state road [Highway 522] by 5 percent. Geographic equity concerns could be minimized by introducing tolling on both the Interstate and state road because drivers on all three routes would then pay a toll and diversion from tolled routes to untolled routes would be less of a concern. However, according to officials in the Seattle metropolitan area, the public and elected officials are opposed to tolling these other routes.

On the other hand, the report notes Washington State Department of Transportation intends to eventually spread tolling to 300 miles of carpool lanes so they become HOT lanes. A state Senate committee hearing is tentatively scheduled on Tuesday to consider variable tolls on the 2016 Highway 99 tunnel in Seattle, and the proposed Columbia River Crossing replacement bridge of I-5 from Vancouver, Wash. to Portland.

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