A possible solution to the SR 99 tunnel's projected tolling shortfall

As Publicola has diligently reported over the past several years, the downtown Seattle SR 99 bored-tunnel project has been an ill-advised mess from day one. Now, with tolling revenue projections cut in half (at least), the day of reckoning is approaching in Olympia, where rural, Republican, and other generally anti-Seattle lawmakers are making noises about Seattle needing to make up the difference. The state is already paying for $2.6 billion of the $4+ billion project, and the $200+ million tolling shortfall is our problem, the story goes.

The crux of the problem is that even small tolls will cause massive diversion onto downtown streets, defeating the whole purpose of the tunnel in the first place, and lowering revenue to boot. From Publicola again, state senator Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) complained that the committee responsible for updating tolling revenue estimates was too "Seattle-centric," and that it's no surprise that they're saying all of the tolling scenarios proposed by the state would lead to unacceptable diversion/congestion and that the state should pick up the difference--"you have an advisory committee that is all from Seattle. What else are they are going to tell us?"

He went on to say "So, the city of Seattle is concerned about diversion because they're the ones that are going to be affected," indicating that he thinks this is a choice between raising the necessary amount of money or accepting more congestion. Take some pain, but pay off your obligations, in other words. 

But while Sen. King can make all the political hay he likes out of this, the committee isn't wrong. Any amount of tolls will fail to raise enough revenue because of the diversion; one problem (of many) at the outset of this project was the fanciful expectation that people would be willing to pay for a trip through the tunnel when there are so many other free options for getting through the city.

This committee, the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management, had a meeting in September where they discussed various tolling rates and the diversion this would entail. They produced a pdf presentation that includes some of those numbers, which can be found here. Unfortunately it only includes numbers for mid-day (1:30-2:30 pm) and peak period (3-6 pm), but those numbers are instructive. We'll focus on the peak period numbers because that's when a) the most cars use the tunnel, b) the tolls are highest and the most revenue is raised, and c) when the congestion penalty for choosing another route is largest. Let's take a look.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

Combining both northbound and southbound traffic for the peak period, they estimate that there would be 21,800 cars using the tunnel with no tolls. 21,800 cars, zero revenue. Now let's add the smallest tolls, $2.25 for southbound travel, and $1.50 for northbound. This diverts about 30% of vehicles, leaving us with 15,300 using the tunnel and many of the rest using other city streets. We also want to know how much it raises compared to other scenarios, so just for the purposes of comparison we'll calculate revenue for the day, which equals $28,125. 

The high toll scenario raises $40,675, but results in almost 50% diversion, spilling over 10,000 vehicles onto nearby roads at the busiest time of day.

Maybe that's just the price we pay though, if we want to do the right thing and cover our $400 million share, right? Wrong. From the same report, even the high-toll scenario raises only $250 million (or as little as $210 million) in actual project funding--the low-toll scenario doesn't even warrant consideration because it doesn't raise enough to bond against:

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

So given the fact that no tolling scenario raises enough money (although I don't think the scenarios from this report are anywhere near optimal), the question then becomes whether the revenue differences are offset by other concerns, economic and otherwise. For example, there's a $40 million difference between the High Toll Benchmark and Scenario 1, but the HTB diverts an additional 1,200 vehicles just during evening peak. Is that money worth the decreased safety and the economic, environmental and psychological cost of increased congestion? If not, maybe we just eat the loss and come up with a different way to raise the money. This question actually suggests the beginnings of a solution.

The solution begins with accepting that the Washington State DOT is probably most to blame for the failed tolling projections. They designed the project and it's alternatives, and they created the faulty estimates from back before the tunnel was actually approved. eattle voted to approve the tunnel, yes. It was a huge mistake, no doubt, but the vote was undertaken with almost criminal levels of misinformation. So while Seattle voted yes, to say that they should be on the hook for a mistake a state department made would be incredibly unfair.

Instead, let's do this: to start, do a better job on these tolling scenarios. Just to start with, the high toll benchmark numbers seem like they should be switched for northbound and southbound. Diversion is way worse for southbound and yet it has a higher toll than northbound--reverse those and you probably end up with slightly more revenue and less diversion. The point is, it can and should be improved, and then those options should be reported to the state. Now pass the report along to the city and the state.

Upon receiving the new scenario plans, the city can choose which tolling regimen they prefer, but all revenue that falls short of the highest-revenue benchmark is covered by the city. The rest is covered by the state. In the case of the existing scenarios, this means that if we choose Scenario 1 with it's $210 million revenue in favor of the High Toll Benchmark revenue of $250 million, Seattle is on the hook for $40 million and the state pays the remaining $150 million to bring us up to $400 million total. 

This allows Seattle to decide for itself on the costs vs. benefits of higher revenue or worse traffic, but doesn't punish them for the original sin of WSDOT's awful tolling projections at the outset of the project. We take responsibility for what we could reasonably be considered responsible for, and the state does the same. Neat.