Commission gives preliminary approval for $4 Narrows toll

Public meetings set: Board could lower Good to Go rate at last meeting

JORDAN SCHRADER; Staff writerMarch 21, 2012 

It’s not just gas prices that are hitting the $4 mark in the South Sound.

It would cost at least that much to cross the eastbound span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge starting July 1 if the state Transportation Commission stands by its preliminary decision Tuesday to raise tolls by $1.25 for drivers with prepaid accounts.

The commission avoided a toll increase for three years while it burned through reserves, allowing the bridge’s fund balance to fall below what the commission considers sufficient. It now says it must raise tolls this year and almost certainly again next year to pay the rising cost of debt service.

“This is for just one year,” commission chairman Richard Ford said after the meeting. “There’s going to be a big jump (in debt service) in fiscal 2014, so that’ll be another bloodletting event.”

Debate remains over how much to increase tolls this year.

The commission agreed with a citizen committee Tuesday in calling for a $1 increase in cash tolls, to $5, and a $1.50 increase for drivers who pay by mail, to $7.

But for drivers with electronic Good to Go accounts – the preferred method for seven of every 10 trips across the Narrows Bridge – the commission voted for an increase 35 cents higher than what the citizen advisory committee proposed.

That $1.25 increase, to $4, is a ceiling. Transportation Commission members can back off before they take a final vote in two months, but they would be unlikely to go higher because such a move would delay the July 1 start date.

“We can always go down,” Ford said, “but you can’t go back up without starting over.”

The commission voted 5-to-2 for the $4 rate proposed by commission member Anne Haley, the chairwoman of the Brown & Haley board, and rejected an alternative $3.75 rate proposed by commission member Tom Cowan with support from Dan O’Neal.

Haley said her proposed rate was as low as she was willing to go. It would pad the toll account with at least $3 million more than what the citizen advisory committee proposed.

“I think we’re overestimating the risk, taking $3.5 million out of the community needlessly,” Jim Pasin of the citizen panel said after the vote.

If anything, he said, it’s risky to raise the rates too high, squeezing toll payers and reducing their trips across the bridge.

Commission members could hear pleas for a smaller increase at three 6 p.m. public hearings: April 18 at Port Orchard City Hall, April 19 at the Gig Harbor Civic Center and May 21 at the civic center, when the commission will set the rate.

The state counted on ever-increasing tolls to finance the bridge’s construction. Debt payments are projected to keep climbing, and the bridge must eventually also pay deferred sales tax on its construction.

Lawmakers agreed to delay the $5.8-million-a-year sales tax payment six more years, under a measure sponsored by Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and awaiting Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature.

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