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Toll Hike for Bridge Users Likely to be Big

The Citizens Advisory Committee for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge met publicly Wednesday night to talk about higher tolls and scenarios that would increase them by upwards of $2.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge users should brace themselves for a big jump in toll rates, probably by mid-year.

That was the takeaway from a public meeting of the bridge's Citizens Advisory Committee at the Wednesday night.

“No one likes to bring bad news and this is a bad news session,” Committee Chair Alan Weaver told a full house of residents and business leaders. “Tolls will have to go up.”

Right now it costs $2.75 for Good to Go drivers to use the bridge, $4 to pay cash and $5.50 to pay by mail.

The Jan. 11 meeting looked at scenarios that would raise those rates by $1.50 to $2.

Essentially, flat revenues and fewer bridge users due to the recession, combined with higher debt costs and an evaporating cash reserve fund, are what makes the sizable hike necessary. The last toll increase was in 2008. Last year, the Washington State Transportation Commission deliberately chose to dip into cash reserves rather than impose an increase on bridge users in this economy. 

Now if tolls remain at their current level, the Washington State Department of Transportation has projected the bridge’s finances will wipe out cash reserves by November and tumble into an $18.7 million overall deficit by mid-2013. The shortfall would continue to grow from there.

To avoid that, drivers with Good to Go passes, who account for 75 percent of the traffic across the bridge, could see a toll increase to $4.25 or $4.50, according to four rate hike scenarios presented by Craig Stone, WSDOT’s toll division director. Tolls for cash payers could rise to $5.50 or $6. Those who pay by mail could see $7 to $7.50 tolls.

Those amounts were requested by the Weaver and CAC Vice Chair Chris Myers in order to kick off discussions on the subject, said Stone. “They didn’t ask us to do any more tonight, so that very well could mean these are the ones they are going to consider,” he added.

The toll increase should ensure that the state can meet its rising expenses related to building the new bridge. The state sold 10 bond issues between 2002 and 2007 to pay for the construction, and principal and interest payments on those obligations will continue to rise annually through the 17th year of the funding’s 30-year life. In December, an additional $5.7 million a year over 10 years will be needed to pay off a $57 million in deferred sales tax incurred on the construction. Plus, $5.3 million borrowed from the gas tax fund must be repaid as well.

Less certain at this point is how far a $1.50-$2 toll increase will go toward maintaining minimum cash reserves for the Narrows. The commission’s policy has been to have that “savings” balance equal to at least 12.5 percent of annual bridge costs — enough to cover 45 days worth of expenses should some event derail traffic on the bridge.

But none of the higher toll-rate scenarios reviewed Wednesday night would accomplish that beyond the middle of 2013. Even the scenario with the biggest bump up in tolls — $4.50 for Good to Go, $6.00 for cash and $7.50 for pay by mail — would see the cash reserve coverage fall below the 12.5 percent target in the following fiscal year ending June 30, 2014 and then continue to drop off from there.

The cash reserve isn’t contractually required in any of the Narrows Bridge bond documents, so the transportation commission could change its policy. “But we don’t plan to,” Commissioner Dan O’Neal told attendees at the CAC meeting. “We have a fiduciary obligation to make sure these payments will be made.”

Some at the meeting, including known Narrows toll critic Randy Boss and state Sen. Derek Kilmer questioned whether the reserve was even necessary. Boss said bridge users already pay for WSDOT to self-insure the bridge. Kilmer pointed to the bonds’ triple layer of guarantees as adequate protection against a potential interruption in the ability to meet debt obligations.

Kilmer and Rep. Larry Seaquist, who was also at the meeting, are taking their own steps to help ease the financial crunch for the Narrows. The two are pushing legislation that would exempt the bridge from the sales tax it owes, which if successful could translate into a 40-cent saving on each toll, said CAC member Jim Pasin.

“I think it is really bad policy to pay a toll to pay a tax,” said Kilmer. “It’s not fair to our communities.”

The Senator also has urged State Treasurer James McIntire to explore alternatives for restructuring the Narrows Bridge bonds that could reduce WSDOT’s debt payments going forward.

Despite such strands of hope, numerous residents used the public comment period toward the end of the meeting to vent their frustrations over tolls.

“I’m retired and you are killing me going across the bridge. You’re killing me,” said one Gig Harbor resident.

Sandra Bradley echoed the sentiment. “If the toll goes up I will not be able to cross the bridge and I can’t be the only one. This is a fact of what will happen,” she said.

Others expressed concern over the economic impact to businesses and the community if the cost of crossing the Narrows made Gig Harbor and other nearby towns a less attractive place to live.

The CAC will be studying the toll hike issue and weighing its options over the next couple of months and will make its recommendation to the transportation commission by March 20.

Its next meeting at the Gig Harbor Civic Center is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8. Beforehand, WSDOT will host an open house at 5:30 p.m.

Comments or questions to the CAC may be submitted either online at: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/TNBTolling/CitizenAdvisoryCommittee or by mail to TNB-CAC, WSDOT Toll Division, 401 2nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98104.

Mark Hoppen January 13, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Kudos to Larry Seaquist and Derek Kilmer for suggesting fair and realistic ways to minimize toll cost. During the environmental phase of the bridge improvements, long before construction, it was anticipated that within several years of opening, tolls would reach $6. This current increase is not a surprise. As long as this bridge is not subsidizing other tolling programs and does not exceed a mean toll of $6, I will grimace and bear it. But, I expect commission members and legislators to be able to explain our bridge toll in the context of all state tolls. Is Jan Angel going to weigh in on this issue? Does she care?
Rob Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 06:04 PM
To increase revenue, you need to decrease the cost of crossing the bridge to get more people to cross...... I echo the statement of many..... you raise the toll and I cross the bridge less...... instead of running across the bridge to Tacoma, I will combine all of my trips into ONE trip. This is the same wrong minded thinking of all government and beaurocats on almost every issue...... just raise the TAXES on the people...... but by raising TOLLS which are TAXES....... people will cross the bridge LESS and WSDOT will come back next year and say they have less people crossing the bridge so they have to raise the TOLL again....... and again and again...... If you want more revenue and more crossings....... LOWER the cost....... and cut YOUR SPENDING....
Lynnelle Salanoa Pugmire January 13, 2012 at 06:23 PM
HOW CAN I VOICE MY OPINION TO THE BOARD OR WHO IS THE BEST PERSON TO VOICE MY OPINION ABOUT THIS? Our family crosses the bridge several times a day. This is a very big expense monthly for us. I know a family that is moving because this too has become a big expense. Families that have kids going to schools, activities, work, entertainment across the bridge suffer the most, in my opinion.
Lynnelle Salanoa Pugmire January 13, 2012 at 06:24 PM
I also think that raising the Tolls will hurt Gig Harbor in the long run. The cost of everything, utilities, food, gas, everything has gone up. Wages, raises, have gone down for many people.
Akiko Oda January 13, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Lynnelle, you can submit comments or questions to the Citizen Advisory Committee via online at: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/TNBTolling/CitizenAdvisoryCommittee or by mail to: TNB-CAC, WSDOT Toll Division, 401 2nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98104.
Randy Boss January 13, 2012 at 06:39 PM
Mark: Why do you "D's" always taking swipes at the "R'sR? Derek and Larry come home from Olympia every night when the legislature is in session and Jan has opted to stay in Olympia and attend conferences and meeting and negotiations etc. to do our business for us almost 24/7. Pasin announced her inability to attend but that she was being kept well informed. She is working alongside Derek and Larry (as a team) to make sure everything that can be done to keep the tolls as low as possible for as long as possible is being done in a cooperative nature with the other side of the isle - for the people of Gig Harbor! Can you leave politics out of this issue. Please! It's way too important to this community! Randy
Randy Boss January 13, 2012 at 06:54 PM
Mark: You can't give credit to Derek and Larry credit for the sales tax. That issue got legs a couple of weeks ago when Craig Stone appeard at the Gig Harbor Chamber Meting and I pinned him down on that issue myself. Your comments about tolls planning to be at $6.00 is misleading. The financial plan set those tolls years before the construction of the bridge was even started and once the bonds were sold the total construction dripped and the "predicted" toll rates went out the window. The last question I asked the Commission (and have been asking this for years) is why we have to pay 100% of the cost of our bridge while the 520 users are only paying 20% of the cost of their project through toll collections? If you olny look directly at the cost of the bridge alone it is still well less than 50% of the cost. WHERE IS OUR STATEWIDE TOLL EQITABILITY ACT? Randy
Derek Young January 13, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Actually Randy, Mark is correct. The increase is mostly due to the structure of the bonds which were backloaded to keep the "initial rate" down to the promised $3. Sorta like the hybrid adjustable rate mortgages that were popular at the time and eventually got us into trouble. It was never sustainable at that toll rate for any number of trips. A lot of people pointed out at the time that this was deeply dishonest and financially foolish, but it passed that way. As for the sales tax, the reason we haven't paid it yet is due entirely to the work of our delegation, particularly Sen. Kilmer and former Rep. Lantz who got the initial bill passed. They've been able to delay it ever since. The hope has always been to be rid of it entirely, but putting off its payment has already saved us from increasing tolls to date. The whole delegation deserves credit, but it's definitely as a result of their work over years, not the last couple weeks or a question at a forum.
Lynnelle Salanoa Pugmire January 13, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Thank you Akiko!
ghhusky January 13, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Increased tolls will equate to lower traffic. For some reason, it has been forgotten that the tolls also pay the maintenance on the north bridge, as well as additional state patrol personnel. What happened to the funds that had previously paid the maintenance on the north bridge??
phil January 13, 2012 at 08:13 PM
Let's see... Bad economy = less bridge crossers. Less crossers = higher tolls. Higher tolls = less crossers. Less crossers = higher tolls. Higher tolls = less crossers. Ad nauseam....! Eventually there will be NO BRIDGE CROSSERS......what then...?
Harborite January 13, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Goodbye Tacoma, hello Port Orchard :o)
Gig Harbor Guy January 14, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Wasn't it Seaquist and Kilmer that screwed up the photo tolling and cost us millions? Jan Angle told them it would not work. All democrats can do is increase my taxes and lay in bed with the unions and the tribes. We must vote them out before we do go broke.
wildsky January 14, 2012 at 05:05 AM
Higher sales tax for ems communication system, tolls go up, school district is asking for a higher levy way beyond the rate of inflation, govenor asking for higher tax on oil and higher sales tax, penlight electicity rates going up, food going up. Meanwhile pay stays the same. Don't these people get it. All these increases are going to break our backs. Where do they think we get the money for these? From trees in our backyard?
Christie Anderson January 14, 2012 at 05:11 AM
The bridge toll was the reason I transfered to a store closer to University Place, where I live.
Mark Hoppen January 16, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Angel, Seaquist and Kilmer weren't in office when the bridge and tolling revenues were planned. So, none of them can be blamed for increases in tolls. The State knows approximately what percentage of trips (decline) will result from increases in the toll cost. What the State didn't anticipate was the effect of an economic decline. I expect all our legislators to weigh in on this toll issue at every opportunity. Randy Boss does, and he's unpaid. Since when is Randy an apologist for elected officials on bridge issues? (Randy has actively worked this issue longer than just about anyone else.)
Harborite January 16, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Thank God for Randy Boss' undying efforts to keep us informed and to do what he can to save us from government :o)

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