Bill to eliminate tolls trimmed back to cutting them by 75 cents

Posted on February 14th, 2022 By:

A bill that would have entirely paid off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and removed tolls has been scaled back to cut rates by 75 cents.

Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, who represents the 26th District that includes the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula areas, pre-filed Senate Bill 5488 in early December for the legislative session that runs from Jan. 10 to March 10. It proposed that $772 million be transferred from the general fund to pay off all debts on the bridge, which opened on July 16, 2007. More than $700 million has already been paid during the span’s first 14 years.

On Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee passed the substitute version of the bill by a 10-6 vote and moved it on to the Rules Committee.

Randall wasn’t naïve to think she’d get the entire amount, saying in December that, “I’m sure we’ll have many conversations over the course of the session about other possibilities, but I think you have to set out the boldest plan because you certainly don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

State Sen. Emily Randall

State Sen. Emily Randall

She was right. The reworked Proposed Substitute Senate Bill 5488 now would require that the state treasurer transfer $3.25 million each quarter ($13 million per year) from the general fund to the bridge fund until the bridge is paid off on July 1, 2032 — a total of $130 million. The contribution would allow toll rates to be lowered by 75 cents beginning on Oct. 1.

Current rates are $5.25 with a Good To Go! pass, $6.25 at the toll booths and $7.25 for pay by mail. The reduced rates would be $4.50, $5.50 and $6.50, respectively. Rates for vehicles with three or more axles would not be reduced.

“We don’t always get the whole dream we ask for,” Randall told the Transportation Committee Monday. “I appreciate being able to make a big dent in the daily and weekly and monthly budget of folks whose transportation costs are so much higher than their neighbors across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and along the I-5 corridor. My community on the peninsula has a decreased investment in public transit. …

“In a year where we have the operating budget funds to make an investment to create some more equity for a community like mine where folks are struggling, I am grateful that this committee has been supportive so far in recognizing that the financing for this bridge was done in a way that no other projects were done and ensure that this bill gets to the finish line so folks are struggling a little less.”

Ranking member Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, voted no, saying he and others had already worked for three years to stabilize tolls. He was referring to an effort that culminated in a 2018 work group led by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, that proposed that the state contribute up to $125 million toward the Narrows Bridge. Lawmakers rejected the outright cash, but agreed to loan the bridge fund up to $85 million to freeze tolls.

“The idea was to keep the two-axle rate under $6. It’s $5.25 right now,” King said. “We’ve achieved what we wanted to do. We gave the loan to keep it at that level. Granted, it was terrible the way the bridge was funded, but we worked to make sure we did the best we could for everybody across the state.

“Ms. Randall, I’m sure that people in your district are struggling. People in my district are struggling, but I’m not putting $130 million over the next 10 years into something that’s going to relieve their pain. We had an agreed-upon plan that was bipartisan to maintain a toll that was fair and equitable for everybody, and we’re just kind of ripping that agreement apart.”

So far the state has loaned $43 million. That will have to be paid after $729 million in bonds ($1.48 billion with interest, according to according to state Transportation Commission Deputy Director Carl See) have been satisfied, as well as $57 million for deferred sales taxes on the bridge’s construction.

Unlike any other state transportation project, Narrows toll payers are responsible for virtually the entire bridge cost. Construction of the 520 floating bridge, for example, is funded with 72 percent toll revenues.

“In light of the maximum burden for bridge construction that was placed on Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll ratepayers, there is no equitable reason that the burden of future debt service payment increases should be borne by these same toll ratepayers,” the bill states.

Narrows Bridge rates have increased over time and would continue to if left unabated because of increasing debt service costs.

Overall, Narrows Bridge tolls have remained near what was originally projected. Before the bridge was built, the Department of Transportation published a preliminary toll schedule that placed tolls at $3 the first year, $4 the following three years, $5 the next three, and $6 for the final 15 years. Toll revenue can only cover debt payments, operations and maintenance costs.