State government is lowering revenue expectations on the Tacoma Narrows bridge, but those calculations are almost an afterthought as the state heads into a process of setting new tolls.
The cost of paying back the money borrowed to build the bridge is a much bigger worry, and a much more important reason why Narrows drivers are all but guaranteed to see higher tolls next year.
By next year, without toll increases, the bridge would go into a deficit.
That can’t be allowed to happen, state Transportation Commission Chairman Richard Ford said at a workshop Wednesday kicking off the toll-setting process.
“I’m afraid that would impact the state’s credit rating in a severe way,” Ford said.
Debt payments will balloon from $89 million in this two-year budget period to $108 million in the next period, and to $133 million in the period after that.
That’s just shy of a 50 percent increase in just four years – and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The growing debt payments were built into plans before the 2007 span was built, and tolls were always intended to ratchet up to pay for them.
But in recent years toll hikes have been kicked down the road as the Transportation Commission chose to heed cash-strapped commuters and live off reserves.
The reserves will soon run out. At current toll rates, the bridge is about to drop below what’s considered a sufficient cushion.
The only alternative to red ink: Raise tolls. The question is how much. A citizen advisory board is due to make a suggestion by March, followed by the Transportation Commission setting rates that would take effect in June.
Current tolls are $2.75 for customers who pre-pay electronically with Good to Go accounts and $4 for drivers who stop at tollbooths on the eastbound bridge and pay cash.
A third option is due to start in December: billing drivers by mail after their license plates are caught on camera. It has been delayed along with plans to toll the state Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington.
Those delays account for part of an $8.9 million drop in projections for 2011-2013 revenue since just five months ago, Department of Transportation officials told commissioners Wednesday.
But the bigger reason for the 8.6 percent drop is economic conditions that have led to fewer-than-expected drivers on the roads.