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Letter to the Editor

In response to the Seattle Times article Who’ll be to blame if viaduct, 520 bridge collapse?.

I agree that 520 and the viaduct need to be rebuilt. However, there is an straightforward and fair solution to the problem of crumbling infrastructure that doesn’t require an unpopular statewide gas tax.

The solution is tolls. Tolls are fair because they place the costs of building infrastructure directly on those that use the infrastructure, instead of forcing residents of Spokane and Walla-Walla to pay for improvements in Seattle that they will likely never see or benefit from. Setting up tolling systems is also straightforward – it has been done many times before and the process is well understood.

Furthermore, tolls can help solve traffic problems as well. By changing the amount of the toll by the time of day, free-flowing traffic can always be ensured. While I do not often use the viaduct myself, I would gladly pay a toll to cross the 520 bridge, if it meant I didn’t have to wait in traffic for hours.

Finally, if government balks at the price of rebuilding these important roadways, then we can always follow the example of the French when the private construction group Eiffage financed the building of the world’s tallest bridge in exchange for the right to collect the toll for 75 years.

2 Responses to “Letter to the Editor”

  1. nordsieck Says:

    It might be a good idea to wait and see what happens with the private soon-to-be highway in Texas before allowing a private company to take advantage of public domain laws (although a highway is certainly the architypical public domain use).

    I have quite a bit of sympathy for people who want toll roads – the people who use roads should bear the cost of their use.

    That being said, tolls have quite a few problems. There are few if any toll roads right now. If the state starts to put tolls on roads there will be a significant amount of time (perhaps 10 to 20 years) before all roads (highways only?) become toll roads. During that time period, tolls will create, not solve, traffic problems.

    Additionally, tolls increase the size of state government. Raising taxes doesn’t necessitate that the government hire anyone, because it is merely a change in the tax rate, whereas institutuing tolls, especially state-wide tolls on roads will put large numbers of new employees on the state payroll. State government is large enough that fiscal responsibility is a real problem – adding toll booth workers to it is not a good thing.

    The real answer is to force government to be more accountable – either by removing government entirely from the picture via public companies, or by pushing development and maintenance of highways down to the county and city level.

    Even if tolls are the right answer, state government is not the right place to fund the development and maintenance of roads – fiscal responsibility is simply too elusive at that level. Instead, state government should focus on writing effective standards that construction companies should have to abide by when doing work for more local governments.

  2. Ryan Says:

    First of all, eminent domain abuse is not a major problem in this case because the idea is to replace roads that already exist. Also, if a private company were to be paying the fair value of overtaken property, I’m sure they would come up with great ways of taking as little property as possible to get the job done.

    I’m going to have to disagree with some of your other points as well. While I’m a big advocate of keeping government non-existent or as local as possible unless there is a clear efficiency gain from performing a function at a higher level, I think some infrastructure development is better suited to a government with a wider reach than a city or neighborhood government may have. For example, tolls on 405 in Bellevue would affect everything from SeaTac to Everett. At the very least, many cities and several counties would have legitimate concerns about the abuse of tolls by a city in the middle. A higher tier government – namely the State in these cases – would overcome that particular conflict of interest.

    You still bring up a good point, of course, because the further away from individuals government becomes, the less accountable it grows. The trick is always to set up the incentive structure such that individuals and organizations are encouraged to do the intended result, as opposed to simply saying “this is the intended result” as laws seem to do exclusively.

    Your point about non-universal tolls exacerbating traffic problems elsewhere is a half-truth. Tolls simply shift the incentive structure on where to drive. But these days, traffic is so bad in some places that paying even 10 or 20 dollars for a free-flowing highway is worth it in terms of time saved. That money accrues very quickly and is used to alleviate both the immediate traffic problem and other issues as well, or to more quickly implement the system elsewhere.

    I’d even bet we could have a fully functional and integrated system in a year, if the following steps were taken:

    1. State DOT develops a standard for the stopless toll system
    2. That year, car tab renewals also get whatever piece of technology is required to participate in the system (a few toll booths would allow those not interested in the technology and out-of-staters to continue to use roads)
    3. State and local governments bid off toll collecting rights at various places to private companies that implement the systems. Each system must conform to the standard and work, or the company doesn’t get tolls (this ensures that the tolls start working very quickly).
    4. Don’t bid off the entire project, as the DOT so often does these days. Rather, each intersection or onramp where a tolling area is a separate project. That way, even small companies can get in on the action. Large companies can still bid on lots of individual projects.

    Then, at the end of the year, the entire system goes online. Rates are adjusted to keep traffic always flowing. Everyone is happy, and there is plenty of money to spend on real infrastructure improvements – such as a third floating bridge (Kirkland to Sand Point), I-505 (east of Lake Sammamish), I-7 (North-South bypass of Seattle Metropolis for people just passing through, and to relieve Olympia traffic), etc, etc.

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