INNOVATIVE FINANCE :Wilson Bridge to build with billion dollar shortfall

August 26, 2000

INNOVATIVE FINANCE :Wilson Bridge to build with billion dollar shortfall

Originally published in issue 50 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Jul 2000.


Subjects:tolling bridge

Facilities:Wilson bridge


Locations:MD DC VA Washington


MD Guv Glendening’s reasoning: “The bridge is going to becoming out of the water. No one, regardless of whether it is the administration or congress will be able to prevent finishing a project which is two-third complete.”

There was bipartisan praise for the governor’s work order. Republican senator John Warner said he was “heartened” and called the action “another milestone” and the chair of the Greater Washington Board of Trade said: “We all owe him a load of thanks for showing the leadership and courage in breaking the impasse. We’ve had our differences but this was the right stuff.”

So there we have the latest in innovative financing. You haven’t got the money, despite years of wheeling and dealing, and pleading, of whining and kvetching. No worries. Juss start building it, and count on the prospect of embarrassing the Feds with a partially built project to shame loose the rest of the money midway through construction.

Still tolls?

Seriously though, it’s quite unclear whether this will work. The approx $2.5b project – a new 12-lane 4-roadways bridge plus four interchanges rebuilt on the approaches – has commitments of $900m from the feds plus $200m each from Virginia and Maryland.

No crossing project of this scale has ever previously been attempted anywhere before without toll funding. For the very good reason that it is difficult to raise the large sums needed by taxation without starving many smaller deserving projects of money. Users of the bridge can well afford to pay tolls. They are principally northern Virginia commuters going to and from jobs in DC, general capital area traffic, plus interstate traffic using the I-95 corridor. Hardly the derserving poor. The citizens of the two states are well used to tolls – three harbor crossings in Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and I-95. Virginia’s capital Richmond has two active toll roads and a third toll crossing (VA-895) under construction. Dulles Toll Road and Greenway. Why not a 12th toll facility?

The Wilson bridge presently carries 180k veh/day, projected to go to about 270k by 2020 without tolls and 230k to 240k with tolls. Tolls could be used as a traffic management tool, varied according to congestion levels to shift excessive loads to the shoulders of the peaks, assisting in maintaining efficient and safer freeflow conditions. And being a pay-if-you-use-it arrangement it would be fairer than more taxes.

Kenneth Orski and myself had a piece in the WASHINGTON POST along these lines. John Undeland, spokesman for the Wilson bridge project emailed us: “Tolls were extensively examined during the study phase of the project. (We) very aggressively assumed an 85% automated toll participation... Was deemed feasible at the time, but hoary head of politics killed it. The issue of diversion was also very big: all those big rigs rolling thru tony Great Falls and Bethesda to miss the toll. To go with tolls now would require preparation of yet another very extensive environmental document since the addition of toll plazas widening the beltway would create substantial impacts in a sensitive area, especially wetlands on the Virginia side. While it would make more objective sense to place the toll plaza in Maryland, interjurisdictional rivalries come to play — MD/PG County doesn’t want them (“every accommodation to Alexandria and we get dumped on”). The preparation of the new document would likely take yet another year (of delay). Going without or a slimmed down version is not an option —would definitely invite lawsuit from our green friends.”


(1) Anti-toll politics – the “hoary head” of politics can just as easily favor tolls, as oppose them. The people of this region are not stupid. They have been reading “funding gap” reports on the Wilson bridge a long, long time. They know there’s difficulty finding the tax funds for this project. Many of them don’t use the Wilson bridge, so they may resent tax funding. If tax funding were politically so superior it would have been done long ago. Maybe a lot of voters would actually reward politicians who broke the inconclusive schoolyard-style cycle of ‘You pay, No you pay, No YOU pay’ that we now hear by proposing the realistic solution of toll revenue bonds. It would be possible to draft an extremely statesmanlike joint statement for Gilmore, Glendening and Slater on tolls for the Wilson Bridge that would help all three of them politically.

(2) Diversion – certainly is a political issue but a managable one. Some of this truck traffic is already being encouraged by congestion on the Wilson bridge to do the western Am Legion Br trip you mention around the Beltway through tony Great Falls etc. When a new enhanced-capacity Wilson bridge opens the quicker eastern Beltway route using the Wilson will be far more attractive. The value of time-saved on I-95 via the Wilson versus other routes will be worth more than the toll for most truckers and other travelers, I’d wager. But if diversion were to become a problem Maryland could consider restrictions on interstate trucks, or better still, a balancing toll on I-495 between the I-270 spurs in Bethesda, the narrow section which carries mostly longdistance traffic. Or a toll could be put on the American Legion bridge over the Potomac as part of managing traffic and funding programmed widening of the Beltway in the two states. There are many ways of handling diversion, but most allegations about it wrongly assume there are attractive alternatives to the Wilson bridge, which there aren’t.

(3) Toll plazas – we don’t have to build manual collection toll plazas at all anymore. Tolling can be done not only by the existing E-ZPass, Smart Tag and M-TAG transponders, but by the time the bridge is built there will be multiprotocol tags that handle the passive backscatter technology of the south and the west as well. We’ll have nationwide interoperable tags. It may be possible by then even to pay tolls with internet-enabled PDAs (Palm Pilots), laptops and cell phones. Meanwhile we have the working examples of Toronto-407 and Melbourne Australia’s CityLink as complex toll systems that avoid the need for any on-site stopping toll collection. They each use transponders, or for those not so equipped, the video-imaging of their license plates, and a bill in the mail. If those guys can do it now, why can’t we plan to be doing it in about 2004 or 2005?

(4) Delay – a decision in favor of toll revenue bonds to close the billion-$ funding gap would eliminate this project’s major source of delay, which is lack of tax money, not MIS/EIS documentations. A properly funded, price-managed facility with money for state of the art ITS gear and traffic impact mitigation will be environmentally superior, more efficient, safer, and more politically saleable than the present underfunded ‘free’ turkey that you have the odious task of defending. It might be fun, John, trying to manage the political brinksmanship involved in a project funded by threats and mutual recriminations, and constantly changing in scope to try and fit within three tax budgets. It will be more constructive meanwhile to quietly encourage the pols to do this crossing the traditional way for such big-buck projects – with tolls. It’s how we got all our great national crossings built: the Golden Gate, Verrazano Narrows, the George Washington etc and many less grand, but important ones as well. Tolls are the right way to rebuild this important bridge. P. Sam

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