Clear Fog Blog

Political musings from Warren E. Peterson

Rethinking SR 520 Tolls

Posted by Warren Peterson on February 5, 2012

Last year my wife and I drove almost the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike. The tollbooths gobbled up our quarters and dollar coins faster than an old style Vegas slot machine. Yes, you could actually pay with coin of the realm either by using “exact change” lanes or a toll lane where a living human being took our paper money and gave back change, politely I may add. There were numerous lanes for electronic tolling and most of the traffic passed through using them.

Back in the State of Washington, we had occasion to drive to a friend’s summer home on Hood Canal. The route took us over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge where a westbound toll is collected. Like New Jersey, tolls could be paid several ways, by cash, credit card or electronically.

Having a choice of payment method is good for the out of area drivers as well as the infrequent user. No need to purchase a transponder and money on deposit, no extra charge if the toll authority has to bill you by photographing your license plate, just pay cash. Unfortunately, such reasonable customer service is not available on the Albert D. Rosellini (Evergreen Point SR 520) Floating Bridge. One reason electronic (Good to Go) tolling is the only option is social engineering. In an effort to smooth out the traffic and discourage use of private cars, tolls vary depending on the time of day. From 7 to 9 AM and 3 to 6 PM, for instance, the toll is $3.50 each way. Make that $5.00 if the license plate photo is used. Not a problem if you are part of the 1% but fairly expensive for the rest of us. If you had to travel the peak hours for say 40 weeks, five days a week, prepare to find an additional $1,400 in your budget. You could cut this somewhat by adjusting your travel times, taking the bus or using I-90 which is what the social engineers want you to do except there is talk of closing one of those options by tolling I-90.

Since the primary purpose of the tolls is to pay for construction of a new bridge, why not charge a lower flat rate 24/7 and employ a couple dozen toll takers for those who don’t have a Good to Go pass. A flat rate is fair, it allows metering of traffic by funneling cars through toll plazas without the financial penalty and fewer enforcement and billing people could offset the addition of human toll collectors.

Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125 would have instituted a flat rate toll but it failed to pass, probably because it contained too many other transportation issues such as light rail across I-90. Maybe an initiative on the single issue of a flat rate toll for the Rosellini Bridge would pass. How about it, Tim?

Cross posted on: Sound Politics

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2 Responses to “Rethinking SR 520 Tolls”

  1. Two sharp readers caught two errors. One, the toll on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is collected only eastbound. Two, we did drive the Garden State Parkway from Cape May in the south to Staten Island where we switched over to the New Jersey Turnpike. The tolls on the parkway are collected at the exits by a card showing the entry point. The turnpike collects tolls as I described.

    By the way, the toll bridge from New Jersey to Staten Island cost us $13.

  2. Adam Kolasinski said

    The purpose prices is to allocate scarce resources to their most productive use, and the same applies to tolls.

    Access to the 520 is scarce during rush hour. That is, more people want to drive across it than physically can at a resonable speed. The same is not true during the middle of the night, when hardly anyone wants to use it. Hence the toll SHOULD be higher during rush hour, simply because demand is higher. That way, during rush hour, access to the bridge gets allocated to the people to who value it the most. Charging less during off-peak times creates incentives for people who place a lower value on access during rush hour to drive when demand is lower. Why do you have a problem with that?

    It’s the same principle that causes air fares to be higher during times of peak travel demand (i.e. flights departing the day before thanksgiving after 5:00 PM), and be lower during times when fewer people want to fly (i.e. at 6:00 AM in the middle of the week in February).

    On the other hand, if we just set a low, flat toll, during rush hour we will have more people wanting to use the 520 than physically can, resulting in traffic jams. We’ll also get underutilization at times when demand is low. Why would you want that? Do you also support forcing airlines to have flat fares that don’t vary with the time of day or year?

    Variable tolling has nothing to do with social engineering. It just about supply and demand. That’s why free market economists almost universally favor it.

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