Majority Democrats in the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to the state transportation budget bill that would have retained the Legislature’s authority to set toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and ferry fares on Tuesday, according to a press release by the Washington State House Republicans.
Rep. Jan Angel, who authored the amendment, said her measure may be the last chance for the Legislature to intervene and stop proposed toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
The Washington State Transportation Commission has proposed to increase toll rates by 25 cents, beginning July 1, 2013, which would bring the price to $4.25 for electronic (“Good to Go”) tolling, $5.25 at the toll booth and $6.25 for pay-by-mail. The tolls would increase by another 25 cents on July 1, 2014.
During Tuesday’s debate on the transportation budget measure, House Bill 1864, Angel introduced Amendment 386 that would have stricken the divestiture language from the bill and kept the Legislature in charge of toll- and ferry-fare setting authority.
“Without this amendment, this bill would remove the ability of legislators to represent their districts on all toll setting and all ferry-fare setting. We were elected to make these decisions. Let’s give that authority back to each one of the legislators here,” Angel said.
In the past, the Washington State Transportation Commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, had the authority to set toll rates and ferry fares. However, in March, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) ruled that the commission no longer had that authority because of provisions of Initiative 1185, which was approved by voters in November.
OFM determined the initiative “requires some state agencies (including the state Transportation Commission) to obtain new legislative approval to impose or increase certain fees after Dec. 6, 2012, the effective date of the initiative.”
“I had proposed several options in the Legislature to keep our bridge toll rates down, but those bills did not advance,” noted Angel, R-Port Orchard.
She said OFM’s ruling was a second hope to stopping the proposed toll increases.
“But when the House transportation budget was released, it had a provision that would divest the Legislature from its toll-setting authority and return it back to the state Transportation Commission,” she said.
The amendment was rejected, 53-42, on a near party-line vote. Angel said she reluctantly voted ‘yes’.
“I would vote ‘no’ to send a message about the frustration of how the Legislature is relinquishing its responsibility on the toll-setting authority of the Narrows Bridge. However, how do I vote ‘no’ on a budget that will help my district with two ferries that would get my people in Kitsap County to work?” she said.
The release indicated that the majority of the House Democrats, including those representing Pierce County and the Kitsap Peninsula, voted against the amendment. Among those was Rep. Larry Seaquist, who also represents the 26th Legislative District.
“I continue to believe that we, who actually use the bridge and pay the tolls, should have the main role deciding on tolls,” Seaquist told Patch on Wednesday. “So I continue to support the current law and the leading role played by our [Citizen] Advisory Committee.”
With more than 33,000 people unemployed in Pierce County, Angel said she’s very disappointed that the amendment failed.
“This vote clears the way for toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and I can’t help my citizens to stop it. With all the emails I get every day that they can’t afford more toll increases, it is frustrating that I can’t help them, and so I’m very disappointed that this responsibility returns to an unelected commission,” said Angel.
On Tuesday, the House also passed an $8.4 billion transportation budget package, 68-28.
Despite the passage of the transportation budget, Seaquist noted that the House of Representatives, Senate and the Governor have yet to agree on final budget numbers and policies.
“I continue to ask that our Transportation budget writers and the state Treasurer agree to a toll cap. The goal would be to cap tolls at the present level, asking that state gas taxes be used to pay further increases,” Seaquist said. “This would put the bridge on the same footing as the State Route 520 Bridge and the new Seattle tunnel where tolls will pay only part of the construction bond costs.”
In the meantime, the state Transportation Commission has set a final public hearing for May 20 in Gig Harbor on its proposed toll increases.
“What Rep. Angel, Sen. Schlicher and I all agree on, of course, is that we need to do everything we can to keep tolls as low as possible. For my part, I will continue to try to find a way to cap our tolls and cut our bridge operating costs,” Seaquist said.