Driving on new bridge costs $3, no freebies

June 6, 2007 

The toll on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge will be $3 for passenger cars and trucks – $1.75 for automated toll payers – and, yes, cops will have to pay, too.

The Washington Transportation Commission on Tuesday set toll amounts and adopted a policy that says everyone will have to pay them.

Even emergency vehicles will be charged, although they can seek a rebate within six months if they are responding to or returning from an emergency situation.

The tolls will take effect July 16, the day after the bridge-opening ceremony, unless an appeal is filed to the commission within 30 days. The discounted toll of $1.75 for drivers who set up debit accounts and install transponders so tolls can be collected electronically will last until June 30, 2008.

Tolls will be collected only on the new bridge, not on the existing bridge.

“It’s absolutely necessary for everyone to pay tolls,” said Chuck Sessler of Gig Harbor, one of two dozen people who showed up for the special commission meeting at the city’s Civic Center. “The cost needs to be spread across the state of Washington.”

Commissioners agreed.

They and members of a citizen advisory committee had been lobbied hard by various groups – law enforcement, senior citizens, transit and para-transit agencies and Peninsula residents – for some sort of exemption or discount.

But the commission stuck with the policy that was proposed nearly six months ago.

Commission chairman Dick Ford of Seattle said the commission’s overriding duty was to make sure there’s enough money to make twice-a-year payments on the money the state borrowed to build the $849 million bridge project.

That’s one reason the commission rejected the $1.50 discount for transponder users, he said. On the other hand, the commission also rejected the state Department of Transportation’s request that would have discounted the transponder toll by only $1.

“I still have some concerns that we’ll come up short” on payments, said Commissioner Elmiro Forner of Lake Chelan.

Sessler said he is against tolls of any kind, but asked commissioners to at least consider letting regular commuters get a frequent-user pass that would allow them unlimited crossings for $10 a week.

They didn’t.

“We’ve got everybody and his brother wanting to be exempt,” said Commissioner Ed Barnes of Vancouver. He predicted many of those groups will now approach the Legislature to seek an exemption from tolls.

So far, 19,000 accounts – representing 40,000 vehicles – have been set up for automated toll collection. Bridge officials want to reach 25,000 accounts by the time the bridge opens in an attempt to keep Highway 16 traffic moving by reducing the number of drivers who have to stop and pay cash at a toll booth.

It’s the duration of the tolls that worried Judy Vasconcelos of Gig Harbor. “Is this a forever thing?” she asked.

Her question prompted a man in the back of the hearing room to shout, “They’ll never come off.”

Ford said he couldn’t speak for what a future Legislature might do. But current law says the tolls will end as soon as the bridge loans are paid off, he said.

Bridge officials expect the passenger vehicle toll to rise to $4 in 2010, to $5 in 2013 and to $6 in 2016. The bridge loans should be paid off in 2030.

However, the amount and duration of tolls will depend on how many vehicles actually cross the bridge and pay tolls, said David Pope, DOT toll systems manager. The current estimate calls for an average of 38,000 toll-paying vehicles each day for the first year.

Ford said the advisory committee and commission will meet regularly to review traffic volume and toll revenues and change them if needed.

He acknowledged that the commission has adopted a policy that recommends tolls be kept indefinitely on all future mega-billion projects that impose tolls as a revenue source. But that policy is not law, he said.

The tolling policy also will apply to the 9-mile stretch of Highway 167 between Auburn and Renton when high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, open in April 2008. Under that program, solo drivers can buy their way into the carpool lane.

Narrows Bridge tolls

Vehicle typeNo. of axlesCashTransponder

Passenger car or truckTwo$3$1.75

Car with small trailerThree$4.50$2.65

Tractor-trailer rigFour$6$3.50

Tractor with big trailerFive$7.50$4.40

Tractor with bigger trailerSix or more$9$5.25

Note: For three- and five-axle rigs, the transponder toll was rounded up to the nearest nickel.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436

Joe.turner@thenewstribune.com

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