Group Supports Tolls On Hwy. 522 -- If Approved, Stretch Would Be Only Fee Road In State

Would you be willing to pay $3 a day to drive on Highway 522 between Woodinville and Monroe if safety were improved on the dangerous stretch of road?

The SR 522 Community Highway Association thinks so.

The nonprofit group is negotiating with the state Department of Transportation on a $155 million project that would make the 10 1/2-mile stretch of highway the state's only toll road.

The proposed project is one of six under the state's innovative public-privatization program, created last year by the Legislature as a way to shift road maintenance and construction costs from taxpayers to the private sector.

Under the plan, Highway 522 would be expanded from two to four lanes, interchanges would be added, a second bridge would be constructed at the Snohomish River and two toll booths would be built.

Fees would be used to pay off construction bonds over 35 years and would cover maintenance during that time. After that, maintenance of the road would be returned to the DOT.

The DOT has said it probably wouldn't have enough money to make the same improvements to the highway for at least 15 years.

"We went this route because we're concerned about the safety of our families and neighbors," said Woodinville Mayor Lucy DeYoung, who heads the community group. "I don't think anyone is happy about tolls. But they're a tradeoff."

If all goes as planned, construction on the project could begin in the summer and be completed three years later, DeYoung said.

DOT statistics show that 41 deaths and 1,102 accidents have occurred on the winding stretch of highway since 1977.

Under the plan, toll booths would be built near Paradise Lake Road and near the 164th Street Southeast exit.

Studies show about 20,000 cars per day would travel through the west toll booth at Paradise Lake Road; 15,000 people per day would use the east toll booth.

Proposals call for 75-cent fees at each booth. A round trip that called for passing through each booth twice would cost $3.

Drivers could use a portion of the road and pay nothing if they didn't pass through either toll booth.

Dick Carr, president of Interwest Management of Phoenix and adviser on the project, said traffic will be funneled into two areas at the booths.

One would be for people who have paid into a special toll account in advance. They would have a transponder - an electronic device slightly bigger than a credit card - on the dashboard of their car. It would emit a signal that debits the account each time they pass the booths.

The other area would be for people paying a one-time fee.

Monroe Mayor Gordon Tjerne said he favors the idea but points out residents of the city are beginning to express disapproval in letters and phone calls to City Hall.

Residents will have an opportunity to speak at public hearings conducted by the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Council, whose approval is required before the project can move forward.

That process is expected to begin in January, following the conclusion of negotiations between the DOT and the community association.

Residents will have more chances to speak out after that during preparation of an environmental-impact study that will amend a previous EIS that included road expansion, but not the toll booths.