Cook column: Bridge debate takes its toll

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 1, 2008

Guess what happens when you turn a bridge replacement project over to a turnpike authority to study? The authority recommends making it a turnpike, of course ó a bridge with a toll.
That’s no surprise. North Carolina Turnpike Authority leaders announced nearly a year ago that the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River was indeed a lucrative place for a toll. It would pay for the new bridge within 40 years.
But here’s the shocker from the transportation summit held here last week. Local and state leaders have only until midsummer to decide whether tolls are the way to finance the new Yadkin River bridge. If that deadline goes by without action, the bridge’s replacement will be delayed yet another year.
The bridge might be ready by 2012-13, if everything falls into place this summer. The clock is ticking.
The last time the bridge replacement missed a deadline, it suddenly went from a fully funded state project to one for which the Department had no money, and the price more than doubled, from $175 million to $391 million. If we miss the summer 2008 deadline, what happens next? Will we have to build an $880 million bridge with our own hands? Sell pavers bearing donors’ names?
But ranting is useless, as is rehashing the reason we missed the first deadline ó a study to determine if the project would disturb a site of historic significance. (It won’t.) That’s all water under the interstate bridge now, long gone and no longer relevant.
But the fact that a new, toll-less bridge was within our grasp just a few years ago makes the toll all the harder to swallow now. Tolls anywhere are annoying; tolls on a bridge that had full funding are infuriating.
Motorists have been forcing down distasteful tolls with increasing frequency in the United States, thanks to Uncle Sam. Want federal funds for your new highway or bridge? Charge motorists a toll, and you could have a deal.
Some examples:
– In northern Kentucky, lawmakers are considering whether to use a toll to build a new Interstate 75/71 bridge over the Ohio River to Cincinnati, Ohio. Replacing the outmoded double-decker bridge is said to cost $3 billion. Federal and state officials are all for it, but locals are balking. They believe the federal government should pay in full.
– The U.S. secretary of transportation has offered New York City $354 million toward street improvements if it will implement “congestion pricing,” charging drivers fees to use busy Manhattan streets at peak hours. The legislature has until next month to decide.
– In Seattle, officials are debating whether to accept a $138.7 million federal grant to help relieve traffic congestion. The catch? They’d have to OK a toll on a $4 billion replacement bridge that’s in the works. Spanning Lake Washington, the “520 Bridge,” as locals call it, is the longest floating bridge in the world. It’s so outdated that officials have to close it when high winds blow through.
The Seattle bridge situation sparked comments on the Post-Intelligencer’s Web site last August that represent the full spectrum of feeling on tolls.
A former resident tried to reassure his hometown that the toll system in Tulsa, Okla. ó “a little plastic box mounted on my window that subtracts money from a prepaid account every time I go past” ó was not so bad. “There are still freeways around but anything new going up is charged a toll,” he said.
Countless people protested the tolls as another way for government to dip into their pockets after already taxing them in the name of highways at the gasoline pump. That thinking prompted this posting:
“Get over it. Tolls aren’t just to pay for new roads, they are to influence behavior. Your polluting car effects (sic) everyone and congestion has a huge economic cost due to time wasted.”
Another opined:
“Tolls are the future of this region and of this country. Transit users pay every time they get on the bus or the ferry. It is time for road users to start paying their fair share.”
The best comment may have come from someone tagged “Wishin_I_Was_Fishin” ó “Tolls at every entry point into Washington (State): $1,000,000 for every person from California or New York, $1.00 for anyone else.”
But another person saw a dark plot in the federal government’s preference for toll roads and bridges that now photograph the license plate of every vehicle that passes by. “Couldn’t be for the same reasons they’re spying on all of our phone conversations, emails, etc. ó could it?”
From this vantage point, a toll on the Yadkin River bridge looks more like surrender than subterfuge. The state Department of Transportation has presented this as the only choice for replacing an outdated bridge on a major interstate. The alternative is to do nothing and keep holding our breaths while thousands of vehicles squeeze through the bridge’s narrow lanes each day.
That is not acceptable.
A $1 or $2 toll won’t break most people’s budgets. We need this bridge more than we need change in our pockets. But it will break the final thread of faith in the state’s ability to manage highways.
How about a $1 million toll for every highway planner from Raleigh, and $1 for everyone else?
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.