Variations in toll roads puzzle a newcomer

The in basket: David McGarvey of Poulsbo writes, “I’m a little new to the area and don’t understand something:  Why are tolls collected on some state highways (such as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the 520 bridge) but not on other sections of state highways?  Thanks for enlightening me.”

The out basket:  I don’t know where David has been living that a mix of tolled and non-tolled highways would seem unusual. I’ve driven in several cities around the nation that have toll booths on turnpikes and freeways with non-tolled roads nearby. And the two examples he chooses are bridges, which are among the most common facilities to have tolls and have been for decades.

Before Oregon couldn’t get Washington state to go along in replacing the I-5 crossing of the Columbia River, it was to be replaced by a toll bridge. There was talk eight years ago about using tolls for the improvements being done to I-90 around Snoqualmie Pass, says Claudia Bingham Baker of the state Department of Transportation, but to her knowledge, “no one has discussed the issue since,” she said.

I would understand better if David had asked why tolling is becoming more common on regular highways.

For most of our history, tolls were necessary to get the tolled facility built. That certainly was true of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and Bremerton’s Warren Avenue Bridge originally had tolls.

More recently, tolls have been imposed as a congestion-relief strategy, allowing  single-occupant vehicles to use the HOV lanes on some highways, for a fee, notably highways 167 and 405 in King County.

Tolls also are viewed as a way to offset diminished gas tax funding, which has fallen prey to reduced gasoline consumption by smaller cars and the ebb and flow in how much people drive. Electoral and legislative decisions have also eroded tax sources for building highways.

Where you see tolls, it will be on a recently built or revised bridge or highway. My guess is they’ll be much more common in coming years. They have the benefit of exempting people who don’t use the facility from having to pay for it

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