Get ready, you’ll be paying tolls on the 520 floating bridge next spring. You can already start pre-signing up at www.wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo. I have mixed feeling about this $2-$4 dollar toll on 520.
The economist in me likes tolls because they’re a better user fee than a gas tax to fund roads. But the fiscal conservative in me doesn’t like them because we’ve already paid for this through years of gas taxes. Realize that in April, 2011 we’ll be double paying when we use our “Good to Go” pass and zoom through the 520 toll without stopping to get to Seattle.
Yet economics teaches us that tolling is better at gauging, and adjusting to, demand, than a tax. And more importantly, tolling allows price fluctuation, that is, prices varying per time depending on demand (traffic). A gas taxpayer pays the same whether he’s driving at 3 a.m. in Okanogan, or 5 p.m. across 520. Fluctuating prices help spread out the time people drive, reducing “rush hours.”
Price fluctuation is critical (and we have it in nearly every other field) because it communicates how much society wants something. The rising and lowering of prices allow supply to meet demand as a “market clearing” price is reached. This maximizes efficiency, and hence the wealth, of a society.
It will be an expense and pain for all of us to start paying tolls (which are far more common in other areas of the U.S.), but if the gas tax were correspondingly reduced, tolling is the ideal way to fund roads and bridges. Start with government tolling and then move to privatization, where a company runs it. I’m hoping this is the future of roads, where state gas taxes are replaced by private tollways.
520, State Route 520, or SR 520, a.k.a. the “floating bridge,” or “Evergreen Point Floating Bridge,” officially known as the “Gov. Albert D. Rosellini Bridge,” opened in 1963, the year I was born. I remember when the tolls were taken out in 1979 after I first started to drive. Now 32 years later, they’re going back up.
The 520 floating bridge is the longest floating (pontoon) bridge on earth, at 7,500 feet long, or about 1.5 miles. It was named for Washington Gov. Albert D. Rosellini (who is still living today at 100) who served from 1957–1965. He was a New Deal democrat and the first Catholic governor elected west of the Mississippi River. It was his vision that created 520 across Lake Washington, the second bridge to span it. The first was the Mercer Island floating bridge in 1940.
Before the bridges, private ferries plied Lake Washington. (I’ve always fancied the idea of a third toll bridge (or tunnel) from Magnuson Park to Finn Hill, built by a private consortium, and of private ferries once again criss-crossing Lake Washington.)
The economist in me likes the efficiencies that tolling brings, but the fiscal conservative in me doesn’t like paying twice, once in gas taxes, and again in tolls. If only we could correspondingly reduce the state gas tax to offset the tolling. If only.
Jeff E. Jared is an attorney and political writer in Kirkland who writes from a libertarian and law-and-economics perspective.