When the state Transportation Commission set toll rates for the Highway 99 tunnel, the rates were planned to increase 3 percent every 3 years, starting in July 2022 – subject to annual review. Today, the commission was told tunnel tolls might have to rise sooner, since traffic is down and therefore revenue is down. The commission’s monthly meeting included an update on toll revenues from WSDOT facilities, particularly Highway 520 and the 99 tunnel, which started charging users in late 2019. For the 99 tunnel, revenues are 45 percent below what was expected, pre-pandemic.
That’s particularly problematic because an intradepartmental $10 million loan is due soon. The governor’s proposed transportation budget would allow that to be deferred, the commission was told, but $4 million would still be due in a few years, and the financial picture doesn’t look much rosier in the next few years. Raising tolls and/or cutting operation/maintenance costs are the main options WSDOT has for dealing with it. The latter doesn’t seem terribly likely, as another presentation at today’s meeting also mentioned higher costs systemwide from a variety of operational elements, including “repair/replacement” costs and changes in “back-office” and tolling systems. No specific potential increases were mentioned, but staffers told commissioners that if they wanted to implement a toll increase this July, they would need to get the process going ASAP.