By Don C. Brunell
Remember the old saying: Hindsight is 20-20?
If only Washington voters had followed Gov. Albert Rosellini’s tolling plan to build, maintain and replace our state’s major bridges, we would have replacement funds today.
Now, lawmakers in Olympia are scrambling to find the billions needed for the new I-5 bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. Predictably, tolling needs to be included in the funding scheme, but it is still a political hot button.
Rosellini, the Seattle Democrat elected governor in 1956, staked his political career on tolling. In the early 1960s, he proposed four new toll bridges which are vital traffic arteries today.
While he eventually won approval for the bridges, he lost his re-election bid in 1964. In effect, we all lost the ability to fund future infrastructure from reserve accounts that would be established from permanent tolls.
Just as the original I-5 bridges across the Columbia River were built with tolls, those tolls ended when the construction bonds were paid off. Drivers paid a 5-cents to cross the Columbia between 1917 and 1929. Then when the second structure was completed in 1958, they were assessed a 20-cents crossing charge until 1967.
Rosellini supported building toll bridges across the Hood Canal, Lake Washington and the Columbia River (not in Vancouver). When he proposed making the tolls permanent he was pummeled by voters who were convinced lawmakers would simply divert the excess collections to fund other state programs. Unfortunately, legislative history worked against Rosellini.
So the last of the Rosellini tolls came off the Highway 101 Bridge connecting Astoria and the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington. That occurred on Dec. 24, 1993.
The heart of Rosellini’s proposal was in Seattle.
As a way to aliviate traffic congestion on the l-90 Lake Washington floating bridge,Rosellini championed construction of a second floating bridge. It would cost $21 million and beconstructed across the lake starting at the south end of the University of Washington campus.
Rosellini proposed a 35-cent permanent toll in each direction and wanted to put surplusmoney aside for repairs, modifications and eventual replacement. Unfortunately, voters againinsisted the tolls end when construction bonds were retired. In 1979, toll cubicles wereconverted to bus stops.
The replacement bridge costs climbed to over $4.6 billion. In May 2009, Gov. ChrisGregoire, signed legislation authorizing a new toll of $3.59 each way during peak commutes.
The stark reality is without tolls, vital bridges would not be constructed. It has been thatway for a century.
As taxes collected from a gallon of gas diminish at the state and federal level and asmore electric and hybrid vehicles plug our highways, future transportation funding hinges onuser fees.
Even in metropolitan areas with good light-rail, commuter train and bus systems, trafficcongestion remains a growing problem. Unfortunately, the costs to alleviate the glitchescontinues climbing.
When President Eisenhower pushed construction of the interstate highway system inthe 1950s, land was commonly purchased by the acre in open areas. Today, it is mostlyprocured by the square foot in densely packed cities and suburbs.
Our state’s economy is built on moving products and people along our highwaynetworks. While we are blessed with the Puget Sound, Lake Washington and the ColumbiaRiver, we are cursed with finding ways to fund crossing them.
It makes sense for lawmakers to revisit Rosellini’s strategy to “pay forward” our bridges.
Likewise, it is incumbent upon our legislators to establish “locked boxes” devoted to depositing excess fund to be withdrawn only to repair, maintenance and replacement of our state’s majorbridges.
We have “untouchable” accounts for workers compensation. Why not for key bridges?