If state lawmakers decide to extend state Route 167, drivers might pay up to $2.75 during rush hour to drive the new six-mile highway from the Port of Tacoma to Puyallup.
If they instead turn north at Fife on Interstate 5, drivers could choose to pay a toll of perhaps $4.55 to bypass 10 miles of heavy traffic, part of a stretch of 32 miles of I-5 HOT lanes from Tacoma to Seattle. The prices are in 2020 dollars.
Those still-preliminary toll estimates are contained in a report issued last month by the state Department of Transportation that gives the most detailed account yet of what the proposed Puget Sound Gateway would look like. Estimated toll rates are subject to more study of traffic and revenue, and in the end the state Transportation Commission would set the rates.
The gateway concept would add express toll lanes to I-5 and finish long-awaited sections of routes 167 in Pierce County and 509 in King County — projects coveted by the local ports and their customers. The first phase outlined by WSDOT would cost $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion, with tolled drivers on the hook for about $330 million and taxpayers likely footing most of the rest.
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“I don’t think you can do the project without tolls. We don’t have enough money,” House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn said. “We’re doing (tolls) because we are trying to scrape together the support for these projects.”
Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat, led the fight this year for a gas tax increase that would have raised enough revenue for the first phase. Her plan passed the House only to founder in the Senate, but it could be revived in the coming months.
The voluntary tolls on I-5 would be the most lucrative. Tolling the new roads wouldn’t raise as much money, but it’s key to WSDOT’s concept. Tolls would discourage some drivers from taking the new SR 167 and SR 509, and that means engineers could build slimmed-down versions of the highways without fear that they would be overwhelmed.
“The more important thing that tolling does is, it justifies and allows you to take a phased approach as we’ve suggested, where you kind of build key priority pieces up front,” said John White, WSDOT’s director of tolled corridors development.
If funded next year, express toll lanes might open in 2019 and the new highways in 2021.
On SR 167, WSDOT says the first phase would cost $770 million to $852 million and would fill the entire six-mile gap between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma.
The first phase would build or improve connections with 54th Avenue East, Valley Avenue, Freeman Road, state Route 161 and I-5, but it would leave for later the expensive construction of a full web of ramps to and from I-5.
The intersection with I-5 would permit connections only to and from the north, and left turns would require waits at traffic lights. Most trucks travel between the port and points north or northeast.
More concerning to some advocates of SR 167 completion, the new four-lane highway starting near the port would narrow to just two lanes as it crosses south over Valley Avenue. That’s an area with lower traffic demand, White said.
The scaled-back approach was embedded in the revenue package as it moved through the House, but it could come under more scrutiny as more lawmakers inspect the detailed plan.
“I think when you talk to local legislators, it’s been skinnied down without them being kind of keenly aware of it,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican, who said he wants to make sure “we’re not stuck with half a freeway for the next 40 years.”
The cost of a full four lanes is relatively small compared with the whole project, Dammeier argued. White said expanding to four lanes along the entire route would add $63 million to the price tag.
Dammeier said he and several other Pierce County Republicans in the Senate majority are willing to vote for the right transportation tax plan.
Tolling would start in 2021 with the option to pay by mail or through the Good to Go prepaid system, but not with cash.
Tolls on routes 167 and 509 would vary by time of day, with drivers paying only on the new portions of the highways. The study says it hasn’t yet been determined if drivers would pay the same no matter where they enter or exit, or pay only for the segment of the road they use.
It calculates that drivers would be charged a maximum toll of $2.75 to take a full trip on the new SR 167 at peak travel times and up to $2.05 at other times. SR 509 drivers would pay up to $2.05 at peak times and up to $1.15 at other times to travel the new 21/2-mile highway near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The voluntary tolls on I-5 would allow drivers to buy their way into the car pool lanes that are already scheduled to be extended south to state Route 16 in Tacoma using existing gas taxes.
Called express toll lanes by WSDOT, the lanes in the gateway proposal would be similar to the HOT lanes (high occupancy toll) that drivers on SR 167 in south King County know well.
Like the older HOT lanes to the east, prices on the new I-5 toll lanes would vary with traffic congestion.
But instead of exempting drivers from paying if they bring a single passenger, they would require a driver to have at least two passengers to escape the toll. That would drive up the revenue, which WSDOT expects to help pay for the new routes 167 and 509 while also yielding about $4.5 million a year for maintenance and improvements to I-5.
Depending on the location on I-5, WSDOT said it might cost 30 cents to 42 cents per mile in 2020 dollars to bypass the general lanes of traffic at their busiest.
That could add up to double-digit toll rates for anyone who used the HOT lanes for a full trip from Seattle to Tacoma, but WSDOT says drivers are more likely to use just two of the planned five segments, spending $3.20 to $5.65 for a one-way trip during peak traffic times.
I-5 would be widened again in future phases to add another express toll lane in each direction. While some drivers may be miffed that expansions don’t add more free lanes, White said it wouldn’t help I-5’s congestion much to open a new general-purpose lane.
“The demand is so high,” he said, “you’d be in a situation where you open it up and it fills up in the peak period right away.”
No funding source has been identified for future phases. The total cost of the entire project on all three highways could top $3 billion.