Extending state Route 167 west to Tacoma is getting a renewed look from policymakers after a study of possibilities for paying for the route with toll booths.
The state could fund as much as half of the project’s first phase by charging tolls to drive on the new SR 167 and possibly on nearby roads – including Interstate 5 through Tacoma, where drivers would be charged to use a car-pool lane.
But after years of talk, the extension remains in limbo, unlike prominent King County megaprojects that are moving forward.
And every version of the project the Department of Transportation floated last week was scaled back from original plans, including one version that would stop the road short of the Port of Tacoma, spending nearly $1 billion without reaching the road’s end goal.
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“If we go only halfway, this highway literally might take a century to build,” said Sean Eagan, a lobbyist for the Port of Tacoma.
Supporters have sought for years to extend SR 167 another six miles to Tacoma, the road’s original destination before it stalled in Puyallup in the 1980s. They tout the economic advantages of making freight travel easier between the port and industrial areas such as the Kent Valley.
The Transportation Department says the project would reduce highway congestion in Pierce County and create 79,000 jobs statewide.
But with a $1.9 billion price tag, it has repeatedly been delayed.
Legislators have awarded more than $130 million to design the highway and acquire some of the land it would require. But they haven’t provided any money for construction.
Pierce County officials say it should rank as a top state priority along with two King County projects, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the state Route 520 floating bridge.
It’s a priority for Pierce County legislators, said Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, an executive with the county’s Economic Development Board.
But it has lagged behind those other projects – perhaps, some officials say, because the viaduct and the floating bridge would replace unsafe structures.
“It’s not a project that is going to collapse in an earthquake,” Kilmer said of SR 167.
Voters in 2007 rejected an increase in sales taxes and car tab fees to pay for road and transit projects, including a scaled-down version of the state Route 167 extension. Since , legislators have turned to tolls as a way to get the project going.
The Legislature in 2009 provided $200,000 to study the use of tolls on the project. The result was a report presented to transportation officials last week that says tolling could pay for 20 percent to 50 percent of building SR 167.
Tolls would range from 50 cents to $5, depending on the part of the highway and time of day.
The Transportation Department presented five options, without getting behind any of them. The department says the idea needs a more in-depth study.
All of the options show a two-lane road, leaving widening for a future phase of the project. And even the completed project imagined by the study, with four lanes, is scaled back from the department’s plans that have included a third lane, for car pooling, in each direction.
The cheapest option for the first phase, at $923 million, would go only as far west as I-5. That idea causes “heartburn” among supporters in Pierce County, Kilmer said. Nothing short of a connection to the port will improve freight mobility in the region, he said.
Craig Stone, the state Toll Division director, said officials aren’t recommending any of the options. But even the shortened route would at least start the project, with the opportunity to add on later, Stone said.
“If we don’t do anything, we have what we have now,” he said.
All of the other four options would extend the road all the way to the port and state Route 509, at a cost of more than $1.3 b illion. They offer a variety of places to institute tolls. There could be toll booths – or their electronic equivalents – on the new highway, on SR 509, even on I-5.
I-5 through Tacoma and Fife, under that scenario, would get high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes, just as SR 167 has farther north. Drivers with two passengers could use the lanes for free, but solo drivers or those with a single passenger would have to pay up to 30 cents per mile during rush hour.
The state Transportation Commission, which makes recommendations to the Legislature, heard the report Wednesday along with a report about using tolls for a SR 509 project to improve access to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from I-5.
Commission Chairwoman Carol Moser of Richland said the two studies show the state needs to add capacity on its highway system.
But the prospects are uncertain, especially as the state confronts multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls. The commission talked about what should happen next, including finding more money to acquire land, but commission member Dan O’Neal of Mason County questioned how likely it is that two long-languishing projects will go forward anytime soon.
“This is a very interesting discussion, but I’m not sure how real it is,” O’Neal said. Over the years, he said, “There’s been a lot of chatter, but not much action.”