Drivers will pay more to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge starting July 1 as the state Transportation Commission on Monday approved the first toll increase in four years.
And its more than likely the commission will consider another hike next year.
The commission voted Monday to increase electronic Good to Go tolls to $4 from $2.75, cash tolls to $5 from $4 and pay-by-mail tolls to $6 from $5.50.
The commissions unanimous vote followed testimony during a final public hearing in Gig Harbor that a toll hike hurts families and businesses already struggling financially in the poor economy.
Still, there was little choice for the appointed commission, which is authorized by law to set bridge toll rates.
The financing plan to build the 5-year-old bridge relies on toll increases to pay for increasing debt payments.
The facts before us I can not change, although I wish we could, Commissioner Anne Haley said.
The debt payment on the bridge for the 12-month period ending June 30 is $43.2 million $29.4 million in principal and $13.8 million in interest. The total debt payment increases to $45.7 million in fiscal year 2013 and to nearly $54.6 million in fiscal year 2014, according to the state treasurers office.
Tolls are scheduled to increase a final time to an average of $6 starting in July 2015 until the debt is repaid, projected to be in fiscal year 2031. Higher tolls could come sooner than anticipated, primarily because the economy has held down anticipated increases in traffic.Crossings are down 2.6 percent for the first nine months of the current fiscal year, state figures show, and have not met annual targets since 2008.
The commission must set a toll rate that covers debt payments and maintenance and operation of the bridge. The commission adopted a policy in 2010 of maintaining at least 12.5 percent of the bridges annual expenses held in reserve as an emergency fund.
The toll hike approved Monday will cover the costs and reserve in fiscal year 2013 but not in fiscal year 2014.
Theres no question I think that they will have to come back next year to discuss another toll increase, said Rob Fellows, toll planning and policy manager at the Department of Transportation.
Fellows said the commission could set higher tolls now to avoid having the same discussion next year. But he said the panel was sensitive to economic conditions and wanted to hold down the hike as much as it could, hoping a recovery will be in full swing next year.
Commission chairman Dick Ford said the increase will drive traffic away but that reduction was anticipated in setting the rates.
With the toll hike, the state projects 13.91 million and 14.43 vehicles will cross the bridge in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, respectively. It previously estimated 14.46 million and 15 million crossings annually, respectively, during those same two fiscal years.
The toll increase could have been higher, but state lawmakers delayed the start of sales-tax payments due on the bridge construction. Another $4.1 million was deterred in the coming fiscal year with the postponement of an accounting change.
State Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, said its important to start the discussion now about other ways to raise cash for the bridge to meet the escalating debt payments. Theres a train wreck coming, she said.