All tolls, all the time

A new study has weighed in on the topic of tolls and road congestion. This one is different. It considers all tolls, all the time.

A new study has weighed in on the topic of tolls and road congestion. This one is different. It considers all tolls, all the time.

The study comes from the Puget Sound Regional Council, which spent $3.1 million on studying and conducting the issue. A handful of volunteers pretended such a system was in effect to see how their driving habits might change. They were given a GPS system, a hypothetical bank account from which tolls would be deducted and told they could keep — in real money — what was left after the experiment. The goal was to see if they would drive less, or at less congested times.

They did both, but lots of issues remain. The study assumed a toll cost for driving on freeways or major arterials. To avoid the tolls, some participants kept driving as much, but switched to commuting, etc., by using neighborhood streets. Not only are the same number of cars on the road, but now more of them were going by people’s homes. I don’t see this as a benefit, and I don’t think parents with little kids playing in the yard will either.

The study didn’t mirror reality in another way: the participants were given a bank account. In real life, people would have to pay from their own accounts. Even if people changed some driving habits, it still will cost them more to drive. In some cases, a lot.

Based on the driving habits of the test volunteers, the study created estimates for driving times if everyone had to consider all tolls, all the time. If you drive from Bellevue to Everett on the freeway, the study estimates you’ll cut the 53 minute commute to 35 minutes. That’s good. Bad is that the toll is $10.70. Do that twice a day and you’ll spend an extra $21.40 a day. Do that each week and it will cost you an extra $107. A year? That’s an additional $5,564 you’ll have to shell out. Bellevue to Renton? You could cut seven minutes on the now 26-minute commute. The cost: An extra $1,908, assuming the study’s guess of a $3.67 per way toll. Going to and from Seattle ? You’ll cut your time by about three or four minutes, but it would cost you an extra $1,872 a year.

All of this tolling could produce an extra $87 billion over 30 years (figured in today’s dollars). The money could go to improving highways or better public transit. The problem is the improvements would come long after the tolls started. And, even more buses doesn’t mean you’ll save time once you factor in walking from your house to the bus stop and then likely having to wait at a transit station for a connecting bus.

A final concern is the tracking system every vehicle would have installed to tally the tolls. It’s bad enough that people would have to give up their money to use freeways they’ve already paid for through taxes. Worse, they’d have to give up their privacy as well.

Craig Groshart is the editor of the Bellevue Reporter. He can be reached at