Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls to drop 75 cents
Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls will be reduced by 75 cents beginning in September, with the intent that they remain at that rate until the span is paid off in 10 years.
The decrease is the result of Substitute Senate Bill 5488, which requires transfers of $3.25 million from the general fund to the toll bridge account each quarter until June 2032, for a total of $130 million. After the House changed the bill on Saturday, the Senate had to concur on Thursday, which sponsor Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, said it would.
Rates — currently set at $5.25 with a Good To Go! pass, $6.25 at the toll booths and $7.25 for pay by mail — will be reduced to $4.50, $5.50 and $6.50, respectively. The rollback applies only to two-axle vehicles because, “We’re trying to target working families, not freight,” Randall said.
Annual savings for a person who commutes every day will be about $200.
“I’m excited for the relief that working people on the peninsula are going to feel in their pocketbooks,” Randall said.
No guarantees rates won’t rise
The House version removed language that guaranteed the rates would remain 75 cents below current rates for the next decade. Instead, the state’s toll-setting body, the Transportation Commission, is instructed to adjust them as necessary to cover bridge costs.
Future legislatures are expected to abide by the commitments, though they aren’t required to. If they decide to stop making transfers from the general fund, the commission would be required to raise tolls.
The earlier language was removed because it could affect future bond rates, Randall said. Bond holders want the security that the Transportation Commission can adjust tolls if needed.
“But we have some very strong commitments from the Transportation Commission and we’ll continue to keep the pressure on them to ensure the intention of lowering the tolls is met,” she said. “This has been well negotiated with leaders from both chambers. I feel there is a commitment and we’ll continue to make sure we stay firm on it.”
Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, who is running for Randall’s Senate seat, compared the change to going from the National Football League’s hard salary cap to the “soft cap” employed by other sports leagues. He tried to restore the original language through an amendment, but it failed.
So did another, to transfer an additional $57.6 million from the general fund to forgive deferred sales tax on bridge construction, for which tollpayers are also responsible.
Young voted for the bill, explaining that the general fund dollars would be transferred for at least half a year before a new legislature could change its mind.
“If the intent is to give us $130 million, why not just give it to us and keep the cap in?” he said. “I’m going to have to clean this up next year. We will definitely have to put a cap in to make sure the Transportation Commission doesn’t raise tolls again.”
Effort to eliminate tolls quashed
Randall’s original bill sought to entirely pay off the $772 million still owed on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and to completely eliminate tolls, before it was pared back to the 75-cent savings. The $772 million also would have included the $57.6 million in deferred sales taxes and $43 million in state loans used to stabilize tolls. More than $700 million has been paid during the span’s first 14 years.
In 2018, a work group led by Young and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, proposed that the state contribute up to $125 million toward the Narrows Bridge. Lawmakers rejected the outright cash then, but agreed to loan the bridge fund up to $85 million to freeze tolls, of which $43 million has been received.
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.
Overall, Narrows Bridge tolls have remained near what was originally projected. Before the bridge was built, the Department of Transportation published a preliminary 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.
Other 26th District projects
The bridge bill was negotiated together with SB 5974, the 16-year, $16.8 billion “Move Ahead Washington” transportation revenue package. Looking at them as a package deal, the Gig Harbor area made out well, with the $130 bridge promise.
Viewing the revenue package separately, there are no specific projects for the southern end of the 26th District. At the north is $74.3 million for Gorst-area widening of Highway 16, $25 million for improvements to the Warren Avenue Bridge in Bremerton, and $6.5 million for an all-electric ferry for Kitsap Transit’s Port Orchard-Bremerton route.
Locals do benefit from broader investments, however, such as free transit rides for kids 18 and under and removal of fish-blocking culverts.
“I am excited,” Randall said of the revenue package. “I think this is the greenest transportation package Washington has ever passed. We’ve done it without raising the gas tax. It will mean local jobs, local projects and environmental remediation.”
Young said: “There’s a lot of nothing for this district in that package.”
City projects not funded
There wasn’t room in the $17 billion package for $1.1 million to fund three short-term congestion-relief projects in Gig Harbor but associated with Highway 16 that the city has requested for a few years.
One would add a right-turn lane on Wollochet Drive for drivers who cross the overpass headed toward downtown and want to enter the highway on-ramp toward Bremerton. The cost is $400,000.
Another would create a right-turn slip lane on the off-ramp from eastbound Highway 16 to Wollochet Drive, for $550,000. The third would place a signal or meter at the eastbound Burnham Drive approach to Borgen Boulevard before the Burnham westbound Highway 16 offramp. The cost is $500,000.
The city requested $1.2 million to cover 80% of design and construction costs.
Randall said she submitted the request in committee as an amendment but the committee decided not to take any new projects to the floor.
“I will submit them next year and make as many arguments as I can to get them in the next biennial budget,” she said.
Move Ahead Washington
The Move Ahead Washington package went to conference committee because the House and Senate couldn’t reach agreement. Randall said the conference report would be adopted Friday, the final day of the 60-day session.
The package will fund highway preservation, bridge maintenance, road projects, transit expansion, fish-barrier removal, bike, bus and pedestrian programs, and four electric state ferries.
About $5.4 billion of the $16.8 billion will come from the cap-and-trade system established in the Climate Commitment Act, $3.5 billion from the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $2.3 billion from boosting several vehicle-related fees and $57 million each from the general fund and the public works assistance account.
Note: The Transportation Commission points out that there is no specified amount of toll reduction and no specific date for one to be implemented, though it understands the legislative intent is for a 75-cent cut in early October that was in an earlier version. It will analyze the cost and revenue numbers and says it would be highly unlikely that it doesn’t fulfill that intent. However, it isn’t guaranteed. The bill also doesn’t specify limiting the reduction to two-axle vehicles, which it has never done. It will run the numbers for two-axles only and for all vehicles.