The Commute

An informative and entertaining discussion on our ferries and highways with Kitsap Sun reporters.
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520 bridge users pay more, less than Tacoma Narrows

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Toll rates for the 520 floating bridge exceed those for the Tacoma Narrows for those traveling  at peak times.
Narrows tolls, it was determined months ago, will rise by 25 cents on July 1 — to 4.50 for Good To Go! passes, $5.50 at the toll booths and $6.50 for pay by mail. That’s for a round trip, any time of day.
The state Transportation Commission on Wednesday passed a 2.5 percent rate increase for the 520 bridge, also effective July 1. That will jump the peak, weekday cost to $3.80 each way for Good To Go! passes and $5.40 for pay by mail. There are no toll booths.
If you can drive from midnight to 5 a.m. or 11 p.m. to midnight, it’s free. Other times of day are somewhere in between.
Highway 520 toll revenues are on track to provide $1.2 billion in funding  to help pay for the new bridge. This increase is the third of four annual 2.5 percent hikes, part for a plan established in 2011. When the new bridge opens in July 2016, there is a planned, one-time 15 percent increase.

Who would pay for fast ferries?

Friday, February 28th, 2014

I’m getting a hard time about a story I wrote last week. It was about two bills in the Legislature that would allow Kitsap Transit to create fast ferry districts within its larger bus district. I said the people within those fast ferry districts would vote on a plan for fast ferries. If they passed it, they would pay extra taxes to operate those ferries. Only they would pay.

That’s not exactly right. Everybody who buys something or pays for parking within the district, whichever tax Kitsap Transit chose to use, would pay the tax, whether they lived in the district or not. That’s what I meant and how we’ve always described it. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to charge just the people who live in the district.

So for those suspicious conspiracy sorts who believe I’m trying to mislead people, there’s the explanation. Sorry if it wasn’t clear.

It doesn’t appear a bill will pass, though it’s never over until it’s over in Olympia.


Washington tops in percentage of electric vehicles

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Washington has the highest percentage of electric car sales in the nation, according to the state Department of Transportation, with nearly 8,000 registered.
Kitsap is sixth among counties with 233, following King (4,308), Snohomish (807), Pierce (642), Clark (426) and Thurston (287). Those are five of the six counties with larger populations. Spokane County, which has 163, is the other
Top models are Nissan LEAF (4,179), Chevy Volt (1,395) and Tesla Model S (1,064).
Cheap electricity is one of the reasons EVs are popular. Thank you, Columbia River, or what used to be a river. DOT says drivers pay the equivalent of roughly 40 cents per gallon. Electric vehicles also are exempt from sales taxes.

As electric cars continue to improve their range and choices expand, you can bet a lot more people consider them when it’s time to get rid of their current rigs.

Bill would send pot money to ferries, Narrows, first responders

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Everybody’s going to want a piece of the pot pie.
Rep. Jesse Young, the Gig Harbor Republican who was appointed to new senator Jan Angel’s seat barely two weeks ago, introduced a bill Friday to use part of the tax revenues from marijuana sales to fund the ferry system, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and fire and police departments.
That would be great for our area. Young would spend $1.25 million to operate and maintain Washington State Ferries and put $625 million in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge fund to try to prevent further toll increases. I think he’s talking about per biennium.
Nearly $1.6 million would go to cities and $625,000 to counties to distribute to fire departments, with like amounts for police.
“With the transportation package seemingly stalled, adequate funding for transportation will be hard to come by,” said Young, who sits on the House Transportation Committee. “It’s not good enough for us in Olympia to simply throw our hands up and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ We need action now, and the new revenues that will come from marijuana offer us a unique way to help out our ferries, and either prevent, or at least offset, potential future toll hikes on the Narrows bridge.”
The ferries for more than a decade have taken money designated for highways to cover their operating expenses. Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls will reach an average of about $6 in a few years and if traffic doesn’t increase could go even higher. There’s still more than 20 years to pay on the bonds.
The Washington Liquor Control Board is reviewing applications for marijuana producers, processors and retailers and should begin issuing licenses soon.
The initiative that legalized recreational pot — 502 — directs revenues remaining after administering the program to health care, drug abuse treatment and education.

Rare confluence of events jams up Navy gate

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

It’s not often the Seahawks reach the Super Bowl. In fact, it’s happened one other time in 38 years.

Combine that with all the Navy people getting paid at once — shipyard, active duty and retirees — and it’s mayhem trying to get on the Bremerton base and at the commissary with everybody pursuing Velveeta at the same time. Complicating things further, there’s only one gate open on weekends. At least that’s the scenario painted by our good Facebook pals who know the base ropes a lot better than I do.

There was quite a line of cars lined up on Highway 304 waiting to turn left at the Missouri gate.  They were filling up the turn lane and spilling into the next one over. It was like trying to get out of town at 4 p.m. on a weekday.

Hopefully, everybody got in and found their chicken wings and have an incredible Super Bowl Sunday.

Sheldon fears mega-project overruns

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

State transportation leaders said Wednesday they can compensate for enormous cost overruns on the new Highway 520 bridge without postponing other projects. Tim Sheldon will believe it when he sees it.
The floating bridge project was budgeted at $2.73 billion, including a $250 million contingency fund. A state Department of Transportation pontoon design error ate up much of the reserve, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said during a meeting with the Joint Transportation Committee in Olympia. More change orders are coming that will put the project $170 million in the red.
Peterson said higher tolls on the 520 bridge or a tax increase won’t be needed. The state can borrow more against current toll revenues, and some funds must come from “efficiencies” in other road projects.
“Efficiencies,” Sheldon worries, could mean delays or cuts. The 35th District senator and Mason County commissioner has seen it before.
He led an effort to get $15 million in the 2005 transportation funding package for the Belfair bypass. It turned out not to be enough to complete the job, and was diverted to another project. There’s still only enough money to complete the environmental review.
“I told them I did not believe what they were saying, that it would not impact the other projects in the other districts, because it will,” Sheldon said of Wednesday’s meeting. “The money will be swept from other small projects around the state, and they wont’ get done. That’s my prediction.”
Widening of Highway 3 through Belfair was delayed for years and split into two stages because funding fell short. There’s $18.2 million to build the first phase this summer.
“They will do that to other projects, and they might continue it with the Belfair project,” he said. “They won’t happen because the mega-projects take the money.”
Bailing out the new 520 floating bridge project could come up during a meeting Wednesday night about the the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which is being paid for entirely with tolls. The citizen advisory committee and state tolling officials will be discussing whether rates need to be raised to keep up with expenses. There’s a 25-cent increase already on the books for July 1.
Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said he’ll continue to press for a cap on tolls. If a transportation revenue package is passed, he’s proposing to freeze tolls at $4 for electronic payment and $4.25 for cash by using gas taxes to pay the rest. Rates are now $4.25 and $5.25.

Washington middle of the road for user fees

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Washington ranks 21st in the country in the percentage of road funds raised through user fees. User fees are gas taxes, tolls and license fees, stuff you pay if you’re driving the roads.
The Tax Foundation, which derived the information from 2011 numbers, thinks most transportation funding should come from user fees. Funding it with general revenue makes roads “free,” causing them to become overused and congested.

I don’t have a problem with user fees, but I have a hard time grasping that statement.
Nearly half of Washington’s state and local road spending — 48.9 percent — comes from the three categories. Most (29.8 percent) derives from taxes at the gas pump, followed by 12.4 percent from license fees and 6.7 percent via tolls. Though the percentage is relatively small, Washington ranks 14th in road funds raised through tolls. First is Delaware at 48.1 percent, followed by New Jersey (32.8) and New York (29.1). Tennessee has none.
Washington seems certain to grow that number. Though tolls are now only collected on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Highway 167 hot lanes and 520 floating bridge, the state is studying them for a handful of other places. Fortunately, none of them are on this side of the water. We do pay about 70 percent of ferry operating costs, which I would consider in the same category.
Washington also ranks 14th in state fuel taxes, generating 29.8 percent of its road funds from them. That would take a leap if the Legislature passes a transportation revenue package with a 10- or 11-cent increase it’s been kicking around.
Massachusetts is first at 43.4 percent, Alaska last at 2.3 percent.
Washington ranks 30th in percentage of road funds from license taxes, at 12.4 percent. You’d think that fell off the table in 1999 when the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was cut to $30, and has been inching its way back up since then.
At the top is Hawaii at 46.4 percent; West Virginia is at the other extreme, at 0.3 percent.
Combine all three, and Delaware leads the way at 78.6 percent, followed by Hawaii (77.3) and Florida (68.8). Bringing up the rear are Alaska (10.5), South Dakota (21.5) and Wyoming (24.5). Nationwide, the rate was 50.4 percent, about the same as Washington.
The Tax Foundation, which calls itself a nonpartisan tax research group but has been described as pro-business and conservative-leaning, says subsidizing road spending from general revenues creates pressure to increase income or sales taxes, which isn’t fair to non-users and undermines economic growth for the state.

No more Big Macs at Seattle’s Colman Dock

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

McDonald’s has left the terminal building.
The fast-food chain closed its Colman Dock restaurant at the end of the day Dec. 31. Business wasn’t great, and it was only getting worse because of encroaching construction projects.
The corporation decided at the last minute not to extend its concession contract, said Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Marta Coursey. It had been at the location for 26 years.
McDonald’s was at street level, right off of Alaskan Way. A food court opened upstairs in the terminal in June 2008, siphoning off some burger business. McDonald’s had been losing money for at least a year, Coursey said.
Sales declined in recent months because of seawall construction activity and the resultant loss of Metro bus service on Alaskan Way. The disruption is expected to be worse in 2015-16 when work occurs right in front of Colman Dock.
The restaurant also needed $250,000 in equipment and decor upgrades. McDonald’s wouldn’t have have enough time to recoup the investment before the terminal has to be vacated for a renovation in mid-2018.
Speaking of that, everybody will have to vacate for the demolition. Washington State Ferries is hoping tenants stick around until then. Their current contracts run out late this year.
The new terminal building will house two coffee-stand-size concession spaces. Two larger retail shells will be built at street level. WSF might hire a developer to build and find tenants for most of the potential concession space or issue a request for proposals for individual businesses to develop and operate concession facilities, said Tim McGuigan, director of legal services and contracts. The ferries system is looking for a consultant to assess potential retail in the new terminal.

What number of highway deaths is acceptable?

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Of the 85.8 million Americans who’ll be traveling over the holidays, only 261 of them will be killed in car crashes.
AAA projects a record 85.8 million people will journey 50 miles or more from home. The National Safety Council estimates 105 will be killed in traffic over Christmas and 156 over New Year’s.
It brings to mind the commercial by the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission that asks people on the street what the annual goal should be for the number of traffic deaths in Washington. Most answer in the hundreds or even thousands. Then they’re asked what the goal should be for number of family members killed in traffic. Of course, they all say zero.
The ad is part of the commission’s “Target Zero” campaign that aims to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. That might never happen, but it’s worth a try.
Thirty-four thousand people died on the roads last year. In Washington, there were 437 traffic deaths; in Kitsap County, 22. How far do you supposed they would plummet if drivers weren’t drunk, high, speeding or messing with their phones? By half? Three-quarters? How many are preventable?
Though macabre, the National Safety Council provides holiday traffic fatality estimates to remind people to drive defensively and make smart decisions. One would be not to drink and drive. Forty-two percent of all New Year’s highway deaths are related to booze. Christmas is at 35 percent, according to Safety+Health magazine.
Car breakdowns are no fun either, but they beat dying or getting hurt in a crash. AAA says of those 85.8 million Americans on the roads during the holidays, it will have to rescue 3.76 million, including 15,000 in Washington and northern Idaho. The main reasons will be dead batteries, flat tires and lockouts.
People will be driving farther, AAA says. The average distance traveled is expected to be 805 miles, up 45 miles from last year. They’re projected to spend $765, also slightly more. Top activities include visiting with friends and family (74 percent), dining (70 percent) and shopping (51 percent).
The vast majority of people traveling over the holidays — 91 percent — will be doing it by car. Fortunately for them, gas prices aren’t too bad, averaging $3.31 per gallon in Washington for a gallon of regular unleaded. That’s six cents less than last year.
If you’re driving across the county to visit the grandparents or popping around the corner to the grocery store, watch out for the other guy and don’t give them any reason to watch out for you. If we all do that, maybe Target Zero isn’t out of reach.

Speed continues to kill on the roads

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

A new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wasn’t surprising in its finding that speed still kills. It was just the timing, coming the morning after two young ladies died in a speed-related crash on Baby Doll Road.

Though traffic fatalities are dropping overall, speed remains a leading cause. Nationally, about a third of traffic fatalities are linked to speeding. Washington state falls in line with that. Of the 437 people who died in traffic here in 2012, 159 included speed a a factor.

Even though 91 percent of those surveyed agreed that people need to slow down, more than a quarter admitted speeding themselves. Why do they do it? The most common reason, according to the survey, is they’re running late for an event or appointment.

The solution is often easier said than done.

“Just leave earlier,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste. “There’s no point in arriving at a play, or ballgame, or other fun event all stressed out from traffic. If you speed, you put yourself at risk of not arriving at all.”

You can see the full report here.