The opening of the new Narrows bridge is expected to ease traffic congestion between Gig Harbor and Tacoma.
But the folks who run Pierce County District Court are anticipating a jam of a different kind when cars start streaming across the bridge next month: commuters flooding into court to contest citations issued for ignoring the mandatory toll.
County officials believe about 14,000 such people will want their day in court annually, although the number might be three times that high in a worst-case scenario.
Court managers say they can’t handle that kind of volume without adding at least one new clerk and half-time commissioner to the District Court staff, and they’ve asked the County Council for permission to hire them, sooner rather than later.
“We are up to our gunnels already in work,” said James Heller, presiding judge.
District Court administrator Chuck Ramey said he hopes to get permission to hire in two to three weeks.
Court officials have asked the County Council for extra money to hire a half-time court commissioner to hear contested tickets through the end of the year, Ramey said. They also have requested an additional clerk to process the citations.
The council’s rules committee is scheduled to take up the request at its July 17 meeting and could forward a recommendation onto the full council the next day.
At least one council member, Barbara Gelman, said she’s not prepared to rubber-stamp the proposal.
Gelman said she wants to evaluate it in conjunction with the council’s desire to provide satellite court services in outlying areas of the county, including in Gig Harbor, the Bonney Lake area and far eastern Pierce County.
“We’re going to have to take a look at that because we asked the District Court to give us some costs for what it would take to put a commissioner out in Gig Harbor and other areas,” Gelman said last week. “That may have some bearing on whether we agree to fund what they’re asking for. It may have some strings attached.”
Heller said the District Court is still analyzing the best ways to better provide service to residents in the outlying areas of the county, including the possibility of using e-mail to handle some contested citations. The court already processes 25 percent of its hearings via the regular mail, he said.
But the toll issue needs to be looked at separately, at least for now, and quickly, he said.
State transportation officials plan to open the bridge to traffic July 16.
Cameras stretched across Highway 16 will snap pictures of cars whose drivers don’t pay the toll, either at the toll booths or by using a transponder attached to their cars.
Those folks – an estimated 70,000 in the first month – will received a citation in the mail. That number is expected to decline in subsequent months as drivers get used to the toll system.
Still, District Court officials, relying on information gleaned from other areas of the country that have such tolls, believe that more than 1,000 of them will want to contest the tickets each month, Ramey said.
“That’s a conservative estimate,” he said. “We really won’t know what this is going to look like until we get into it.”
District Court is basing its current projections on a violation rate of 2 percent. Officials in the California Bay Area have seen steady violation rates of up to 9 percent on some of their toll bridges, Ramey said.
The number of contested citations on the new bridge probably will be high enough to justify a full-time commissioner who would do nothing but hear commuters’ reasons for not paying, Ramey said.
“It’s a huge potential volume, just huge,” he said.
The District Court currently processes between 4,000 and 4,500 traffic infractions each month, Ramey said.
State traffic officials estimate they’ll pass out an average 27,000 toll infractions per month during the first year the new bridge is open, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the state’s Good To Go program, which encourages commuters to buy a transponder.
The devices allow drivers to bypass toll booths by setting up an account with the state. Money is deducted from the account each time the transponder-equipped car passes the toll booths.
There should be money available to pay for whatever plan eventually becomes necessary for District Court to handle the toll infractions, Ramey said. Adding a new full-time court commissioner would cost about $124,000 per year in salary and benefits, a clerk about $60,000.
The county will get to keep $40 of each $49 fine collected from people who don’t pay the tolls. That is expected to raise about $5.5 million during the first year. It will be up to the County Council to decide how to spend that money, which will be funneled into the county’s general fund.
The other $9 will got to the state to help offset the cost of building the $849 million bridge.
Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644
Estimated eastbound traffic during the first year: 14.4 million vehicles
Cost of toll: $3 without a transponder, $1.75 with one
Number of transponders sold as of last week: 45,000
Estimated number of toll violations during first year: 331,000
Fine for not paying toll: $49
Where to get a transponder: www.wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo or by calling toll free 866-936-8246.
Source: Washington State Department of Transportation