EDITORIAL: Washington turns squirrely

Officials try to wiggle out of expensive tunnel toll

Blog Entry October 08, 2012
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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I would much rather see a shovel scoop than cut. Yes, I am certain of that now.

This feeling became official after what I witnessed at the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park on a cool fall afternoon in late September. The Tigers and Minnesota Twins were between innings when I saw a little squirrel run the warning track along the centerfield wall. A pair of stadium workers followed, one holding a (gulp) shovel and the other a bucket. At first, shovel man tried to corral the varmint with his handy tool. The first few attempts of the friendly rescue were unsuccessful—and suddenly the shovel showed its sharp, vicious side. As the worker went after this creature with the hardware-store spear, my hope was that my worst thought would never be validated. After three or four stabs, the shovel cad gently placed the squirrel in the bucket. It was a bucket that could not have been a challenge for any alert and, well, live animal to escape. I don’t think the furry intruder had either of these qualities anymore.

In the beginning, legislators in the state of Washington saw toll-revenue numbers that were not a threat to become a nuisance or something that would get in the way of the action. After all, there was a major tunnel to construct—S.R. 99—which was a beast to build, but was considered to be a much-needed infrastructure inhabitant.

Then results of a traffic survey came in, and officials quickly started throwing knives at the plan. Originally, it was thought that tolls could generate as much as $400 million for the tunnel. However, House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn came out recently and said she wanted to take a stab at lessening the dependence on charging motorists. By the way, the financial target has since been cut to $200 million.

“I have been out telling everyone to count less on money that comes from tolling and think of tolling as a lower amount that covers operations and maintenance,” said Clibborn.
Yup, that pretty much is the death knell for what could have been a very effective solution for one of the most expensive highway jobs in the U.S.

The provoker in all of this was those traffic studies that looked into the effects of congestion on secondary roads as a result of a toll on the 99 Tunnel. If it cost $3.25 to ride the route during peak travel time and $1 during off-peak, as much as $200 million could be raised for construction. However, the fatal blow to this approach was the fact that it would cause one-third to half of the traffic to scatter to local roads. Another possibility was hitting motorists with a charge ranging from 75 cents to $2.50, but the study revealed as much as 30% of the cars and trucks would boycott it.


Since Washington state lowered its tunnel toll goal from $400 million to $200 million, more is going to have to be pulled from the statewide bridge fund to make up the difference, meaning more needed span projects will meet the ax, er, sharp shovel.

Clibborn believes whatever dollar shortcomings could be made up with an increase in the state gas tax, weight fees or other sources. Weight fees might have a fighting chance, but politicians treat the idea of a bigger gas tax as if it were a rodent with a death wish.

Hey, I’ll be honest, if I were part of this daily Seattle caffeinated commute during the morning and evening rush hours, there is no way I would pay $6.50 every day for the rest of my career. State legislators and officials should have been keen to that effect. You might be able to get away with charging motorists $8-10 to cross a bridge if the next best route takes them on a 60-minute time killer around the region. Seattle, however, is draped with plenty of local routes, and all will be filled upon completion of the 99 Tunnel. Clibborn’s crew needs to pull off a rescue here—or it will quickly turn bloody. R&B

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