Earthquakes and old viaducts are not compatible. People in Western Washington learned that lesson in February 2001, when a 6.8-magnitude quake seriously damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct, one of Seattle's main transportation arteries. Planners and officials are now trying to find the estimated $5 billion it will cost to overhaul or replace the viaduct.
San Francisco and Oakland commuters faced similar problems after earthquakes in 1989 and 1994 weakened the east span of the mammoth Bay Bridge. Work is under way there to construct a new span at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion.
But earthquakes aren't the only source of multi-billion dollar transportation headaches. Washington lawmakers are also looking for ways to fund other expensive bridge projects like the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge between the University of Washington and Bellevue.
Higher gas taxes aren't the only answer. For example, a few years ago, Washington voters rejected Referendum 51, which would have hiked gas taxes by 9 cents a gallon. Today, with the price of gas hovering around $2.25 a gallon, lawmakers need to explore other funding alternatives.
If folks are waiting for the federal government to write a big check to pay for these megaprojects, they can forget it. U.S. transportation secretary Norm Mineta says only $6 billion in federal money is allocated for the entire country.
So what is another option? Tolls. Their time has come.
Not a new concept
Tolls are used successfully in other parts of the country to fund road construction and maintenance. For example, drivers who travel between Baltimore and Philadelphia drop a total of $10 in the various toll booths. Motorists who travel on E-470 for 55 miles around Denver pay $10.25.
Tolls are nothing new in Washington. In fact, they were used to pay for the original Hood Canal and Evergreen Point floating bridges and for the five-mile span across the Columbia River at Astoria.
And the second Narrows Bridge between Tacoma and Gig Harbor will be a toll bridge. It will cost $3 to cross - the same amount Bay Area drivers pay to traverse the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.
In the past, Washington's tolls were removed when the bonds to pay for the bridges were retired. That was a mistake. If the 35-cent toll on the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge was still in place today, there would be money to maintain and replace it.
New technology might someday provide other options, but they are far in the future.
For example, in Oregon, some have suggested eliminating the gas tax altogether and taxing drivers on the number of miles driven by using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to track cars and sending drivers a bill each month.
While GPS systems might be a solution at some point the future, it makes more sense to reinstitute tolls today to get the money we need now.
A worsening problem
Think about it this way: According to the Federal Highway Administration, we built virtually no additional highways between 1980 and 1999, while the number of miles actually driven grew by 76 percent. In other words, we've spent the last 20 years creating gridlock and congestion. So much so that Americans now spend more than 5.7 billion hours stuck in traffic - at a cost of nearly $1,000 per driver in wasted fuel and lost wages each year.
The problem will only get worse. As new hybrid cars that get 70 to 80 miles per gallon come on-line, gas-tax revenues will flatten even as more cars clog our highways and bridges.
Washington drivers may not like tolls, but they may soon realize they need to be a key part of the funding solution.
Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.