State transportation officials consider increased tolls to aid budget shortfall

Transportation officials in Washington state have considered increasing toll route prices and other finances as the coronavirus pandemic resulted in lower revenues previously expected to help pay off larger road projects.

Traffic is down by about half on the State Route 520 bridge and the State Route 99 tunnel, and neither is expected to reach pre-pandemic budget projections, The Seattle Times reported Monday.

Deputy Treasurer Jason Richter told state lawmakers Nov. 30 that traffic plummeted as people remained home to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Officials say the state expects to collect $72 million less in toll revenue from March through October, a 45% decrease, making it difficult to pay off costly projects like the bridge and tunnel. Instead, the state is considering toll increases, highway project reserve funds and other shuffling of state transportation dollars to cover the deficit.

“I don’t see any situation where the general fund would be involved in these toll facilities,” Richter said, adding that the state also proposed using money from fines paid by drivers for late toll payments. That proposal would need approval from the state Legislature.

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Washington State Transportation Commission has said toll increases on the bridge are likely to appear next summer. Currently, drivers pay between $1.25 and $6.30 depending on the time of day and whether they have a pass. It remains unclear how much the prices will increase.

Republican state Sen. Curtis King said balancing the need for toll revenues with increasing tolls is a “Catch-22,” warning that higher prices could further discourage drivers from using the roads.

Department officials have estimated a $7 million budget deficit for the tunnel, which doesn’t have a substantial reserve account to draw from like the bridge. As a result, officials expect deficits on the tunnel for years to come. Currently, drivers pay between $1 and $4.25 to use the tunnel. The cost increase for the tunnel remains unclear.