Transportation

Narrows Bridge toll increase should be the last

Posted on September 3rd, 2021 By:

Drivers will pay an extra quarter each time they cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, beginning Oct. 1. The toll increase is expected to be the last one until the bridge is paid off in 2032.

The Good To Go! pass rate will jump from $5 to $5.25, the toll booth rate from $6 to $6.25 and pay by mail from $7 to $7.25.

The 25-cent increase was included in 2018 legislation that conceded the unfairness of the $729 million bridge’s financing plan. Only at the Narrows are toll payers responsible for virtually the project’s entire cost. They’re paying for 72 percent of Highway 520 floating bridge construction, for example.

A work group first asked that the state contribute up to $125 million outright toward the Narrows. Lawmakers balked, but agreed to loan the bridge fund up to $85 million through 2030 to prevent having to raise tolls to keep pace with escalating construction debt. Tolls will continue in 2031 to pay for $57.6 million in deferred sales tax on bridge construction and be extended into 2032 to pay back the loans.

“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,” explains the 2018 legislation.

The 25-cent Narrows Bridge toll increase is projected to raise an extra $2.5 million to $3 million per year, said Carl See, deputy director of the state Transportation Commission, which determines toll rates.

The law states that the 25-cent hike couldn’t take affect for four years, until fiscal year 2022, which began on July 1. The commission said the “assumption” and “guiding principle” were that it would happen this year, as written in its toll rate setting update.

Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, who authored the bill with Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said it was to be invoked for an emergency.

“Out of a measure of prudence, we decided to add some type of relief valve should there be anything that diminished the traffic on the bridge,” said Young, citing economic collapse, terrorism and vandalism as possible reasons.

COVID-19 fits the description. However, when Young spoke to the Transportation Commission in January, he was led to believe the buffer he and Fey built into the $85 million in loans would cover pandemic-related revenue losses. He didn’t hear anything further.

“Technically, they didn’t have to exercise the raise now,” he said. “They could’ve worked with me and I could’ve come around to pulling the trigger. My preference is that they would’ve talked to me about the amount of buffer left before they triggered the 25-cent increase.”

The bridge fund will receive $30.3 million of the $85 million in loans during the 2022-23 biennium. That’s down from $46 million that would have been needed had the federal American Recovery Plan Act not kicked in $15.7 million for COVID-19 impacts. During the 13 months between March 2020 and March 2021, toll revenue was 16%, or $14.2 million, below the forecast. Traffic has since rebounded.

“It’s come back pretty much to where we’d like to see it,” said Transportation Commission executive director Reema Griffith.

The 520 floating bridge and Highway 99 tunnel suffered much greater pandemic repercussions. The 520 bridge traffic and revenue were both 54% below the forecast for the 2020-21 fiscal year, and toll revenues were $52.7 million less than forecast. It received $50 million in federal funds, deferring a toll increase until July 1, 2023. Traffic in the tunnel fell 37%, resulting in a $12.2 million revenue loss. Tolls there will be raised 15% on Oct. 1. Federal help for each was based on a formula, See said.

Overall, tolls have remained near what was projected when the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened in July 2007. Before it was built, the Department of Transportation published a preliminary toll schedule that projected 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.

State law would have to be changed to add another toll increase, to receive more than the $85 million in loans or to keep tolls on the bridge after all the debts are paid.

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The governor is responsible for appointing a nine-member citizens advisory committee of permanent residents of the bridge area. The committee is required by law to make toll rate recommendations to the Transportation Commission. Committee bylaws state that five members are needed for a quorum. Currently there are only two members, Randy Boss and Michael Murphy, so the committee can’t legally function, though Boss did testify during a public comment period.

“Until those seats are filled, it’s two people’s opinion,” said Griffith.

Boss claims that the toll increase is unjustified, that Tacoma Narrows Bridge users contribute an unfair amount to the state tolling system’s back-office operations, and that the state would rather not deal with a citizens committee.

Mike Faulk, deputy communications director for Gov. Jay Inslee, said committee members resigned and didn’t notify the governor’s office. Inslee’s office is now aware and is posting positions and recruiting candidates.