NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Tim Eyman is wrong: Variable tolling is fair

On occa­sion, Tim Eyman inad­ver­tent­ly does us all a ser­vice by devi­at­ing from his well-rehearsed talk­ing points and reveal­ing just how lit­tle he knows about the sub­ject mat­ter of his own ini­tia­tives. This hap­pened again last week, when Eyman sent out a mis­sive attack­ing vari­able tolling, which is cur­rent­ly per­mit­ted by state law, but would be banned under Ini­tia­tive 1125.

Vari­able tolling is the prac­tice of charg­ing dri­vers dif­fer­ent rates depend­ing on demand, or what time of day they use a facil­i­ty (or both). At times of high­er demand, the toll is high­er; con­verse­ly, at times of low­er demand, the toll is lower.

To demon­strate this, here is the vari­able tolling sched­ule that the state has drawn up for for the Ever­green Point Float­ing Bridge, set to go into effect this December.

Toll Rate (Week­days)Good To Go! PassPay By Mail
Mid­night to 5 AM00
5 AM to 6 AM$1.60$3.10
6 AM to 7 AM$2.80$4.30
7 AM to 9 AM (peak)$3.50$5.00
9 AM to 10 AM$2.80$4.30
10 AM to 2 PM$2.25$3.75
2 PM to 3 PM$2.80$4.30
3 PM to 6 PM (peak)$3.50$5.00
6 PM to 7 PM$2.80$4.30
7 PM to 9 PM$2.25$3.75
9 PM to 11 PM$1.60$3.10
11 PM to 11:59 PM00

As we can see, dur­ing late night and ear­ly morn­ing hours, there is no toll at all, and dur­ing the shoul­der hours, the toll is less than what it is at peak hours.

This makes sense because demand to use the bridge varies great­ly depend­ing on the time of day. In the dead of night, cross­ing Lake Wash­ing­ton is easy; there’s not much traf­fic. At rush hour, get­ting across can be dif­fi­cult, because traf­fic is terrible.

Vari­able tolling rewards com­muters who time their trips to occur before or after rush hour, when demand is at its highest.

This ben­e­fits every­body — dri­vers who adjust their com­mute get to pay less, and dri­vers who don’t get to enjoy a smoother, more pre­dictable com­mute because there are few­er cars on the road dur­ing those peak hours.

The advan­tages of this approach seem total­ly lost on Tim Eyman.

For near­ly 100 years, when there was a toll, every­one paid the same. But now the politi­cians have a new scheme: social engi­neer­ing vari­able tolls — charg­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple dif­fer­ent prices — that is com­plete­ly unfair because it hits poor and work­ing class tax­pay­ers the hard­est. We’ve all paid for our roads with our state’s sky-high gas tax — so all of us, not just rich peo­ple, deserve access to our trans­porta­tion system.

This is non­sense. Eyman obvi­ous­ly does­n’t even have a basic com­pre­hen­sion of the con­cept. Vari­able tolling does not mean “charg­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple dif­fer­ent prices.” It means charg­ing every­one dif­fer­ent prices based on the time of the trip.

Any­one who cross­es the Ever­green Point Float­ing Bridge at any par­tic­u­lar time of day will pay the same toll, no mat­ter how much mon­ey they make or how fan­cy their car is. The dri­ver of a 2011 Lexus mak­ing $400,000 a year will be charged the same for a trip at 2:05 PM as the dri­ver of a 1996 Hyundai mak­ing $30,000 a year.

As with the Taco­ma Nar­rows Bridge today, there will obvi­ous­ly be a penal­ty for not hav­ing a Good to Go! transpon­der (this is because pay by mail tolls cost more to col­lect), but the penal­ty is also uni­form — every­one with­out a transpon­der will be charged the same. Those wish­ing to take advan­tage of the Good to Go! rate can open an account and get a transpon­der at a low cost.

(The state allows pre­paid Good to Go! pay­ments to be made using a cred­it card, a deb­it card, an auto-draft account, by check, or by cash at a ser­vice center).

Many low and mid­dle income fam­i­lies stand to save quite a bit of mon­ey under vari­able tolling. That’s because, at most times of the day, tolls will be low­er than what they oth­er­wise would be if the state sim­ply col­lect­ed the same flat rate 247.

Of course, any toll at all is an added expense that has a big­ger impact on the bud­gets of low income fam­i­lies than oth­er fam­i­lies. The state knows this, and has been lay­ing the ground­work to help such fam­i­lies.

We are sen­si­tive to the eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances of all users of tolled roads. For the SR 520 Bridge, WSDOT looked at how tolling would affect dri­vers with lim­it­ed incomes and learned that it was crit­i­cal for peo­ple to have mul­ti­ple choic­es for trav­el­ing across the bridge. Since Octo­ber 2010, King Coun­ty Metro and Sound Tran­sit have added near­ly 130 new bus trips to the exist­ing 600 trips occur­ring dai­ly on the SR 520 Bridge. Low income cus­tomers may also use Elec­tron­ic Ben­e­fits Trans­fer (EBT) cards to estab­lish and replen­ish a Good To Go! account.

Eyman and his sym­pa­thiz­ers have a warped sense of what’s fair. Why should the cost to get across Lake Wash­ing­ton at 4 AM be the same as the cost to cross at 8 AM, when the traf­fic is so much heavier?

Con­trary to what Eyman claims, vari­able tolling isn’t some­thing that was cooked up by politi­cians in some back room in our state­house. It is a promis­ing method of reduc­ing con­ges­tion that was devel­oped by trans­porta­tion planners.

Fur­ther­more, all trans­porta­tion plan­ning is “social engi­neer­ing”. Not charg­ing dri­vers to use our region’s high­ways and roads at all is social engi­neer­ing. So is charg­ing every­one a toll at the same flat rate, regard­less of the time of day, or the demand. The right wing loves to use the phrase “social engi­neer­ing” to scorn poli­cies they don’t like, but it is meaningless.

Because the vari­able tolling rates for the Ever­green Point Float­ing Bridge have already been set, they will not be affect­ed by Ini­tia­tive 1125. But I‑1125 will pre­vent the use of vari­able tolling on oth­er projects in oth­er cor­ri­dors. The state Office of Finan­cial Man­age­ment says that I‑1125 may also result in the loss of a vari­able tolling grant from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that the state has already accepted.

Every sin­gle time that Tim Eyman has tried to play trans­porta­tion plan­ner, he has failed. The peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton have repeat­ed­ly vot­ed down his attempts to micro­man­age WSDOT. But he’s not listening.

We can’t afford to rebuild our crum­bling roads and bridges with­out a robust, fair, and well-thought out tolling system.

As time goes on, the gas tax will only bring in less rev­enue as vehi­cles become more fuel effi­cient and Wash­ing­to­ni­ans get smarter about com­bin­ing trips. I‑1125 threat­ens vital projects that our state needs — it is imper­a­tive that we reject it.

Please join us in vot­ing NO on I‑1125 start­ing lat­er this month. Keep our roads safe, and keep Wash­ing­ton rolling.

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  1. So, Andrew, have any­thing to say about the City of Red­mond refus­ing to let the res­i­dents of their city vote on the top­ic of Red Light cameras?

    # by Phil :: October 10th, 2011 at 8:54 AM
  2. This post describes very well the advan­tages of a road use fee with off-peak discounts.

    I’ve post­ed the let­ter from Wash­ing­ton State DOT Sec­re­tary Ham­mond to U.S. DOT defend­ing the fair­ness of the SR 520 tolling plan at .

    # by John Niles :: October 10th, 2011 at 3:26 PM
  3. Vari­able tolling has been shown by Dr. Peter Gor­don of USC to divert traf­fic to sur­face streets dur­ing peak hours. Since stop and go traf­fic on side streets gets bad gas mileage and emits more air pol­lu­tion, then it’s best to build more free­way lanes and Bus Rapid Tran­sit. And, vari­able tolling is not fair to the poor who must may more mon­ey to dri­ve to work. If you dri­ve, vote YES on 1125. How­ev­er, pro­gres­sives in the NW are regres­sives, since they refuse to build more free­way lanes. Instead, they wish for a return to the 1800’s with tran­sit and streetcars.

    # by Tom Lane :: October 11th, 2011 at 1:12 AM
  4. Tim Eyman is wrong. Love that title. Tim Eyman has been wrong from the get-go. His ini­tia­tives have caused incred­i­ble harm to our state. Time to stop this lat­est one before it stops us…

    # by Blue State Journeyman :: October 17th, 2011 at 5:34 PM
  5. As a lib­er­tar­i­an, I am very crit­i­cal of social engi­neer­ing, and inclined to sup­port many of Eyman’s eco­nom­ic positions.

    But this isn’t social engi­neer­ing, it’s charg­ing a fee com­men­su­rate to the ser­vice. I’m a lit­tle sur­prised the left is in favor of it, but so be it. The bet­ter job the state can do tolling, the less it needs to tax.

    Edi­tor’s note: Screen name assigned to com­menter by NPI.

    # by Opaleye :: October 22nd, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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  1. […] Tim Eyman is wrong: Vari­able tolling is fairNorth­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute Offi­cial Blog (blog)On occa­sion, Tim Eyman inad­ver­tent­ly does us all a ser­vice by devi­at­ing from his well-rehearsed talk­ing points and reveal­ing just how lit­tle he knows about the sub­ject mat­ter of his own ini­tia­tives. This hap­pened again last week, when Eyman sent out a …and more » […]

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