A citizens panel took a first step Tuesday night as it considers raising tolls to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge for a second consecutive year, beginning next summer.
The bridge’s citizen advisory committee spent most of its time during its two-hour work session getting familiar with the bridge’s recently revised budget numbers. Those figures will set the framework of the committee’s discussion on any toll increases it might recommend in the coming months.
The budget shows that existing tolls will raise enough money to pay for, maintain and operate the bridge and leave an adequate reserve for the current fiscal year. The state raised tolls in July.
But that’s not the case for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The $8.3 million increase in the bridge’s annual debt payment – to $54.1 million from $45.8 million – and increasing costs to maintain, insure and collect tolls leaves the reserve about $1.2 million short of the reserve target, the projections show.
That equates to about an 8-cent toll hike based on the average traffic volumes in recent years. (In the 2015 fiscal year, the reserve is projected to miss its target by $6 million under existing tolls.)
Any toll hikes that would be considered in future meetings are “clearly not” going to be as a steep as this year’s increases, said Rob Fellows, toll planning and policy manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Drivers who use Good to Go! saw their toll increase to $4 from $2.75 last summer, and cash tolls went up $1.
Those increases were the first in four years as officials decided to significantly spend down reserves rather than raise tolls in the poor economy.
“It’s not the same sort of magnitude,” Fellows said of the current toll-setting process.
The 2002 plan developed to finance the bridge’s construction relied on growing traffic and revenue to make escalating debt payments until 2030, when the bonds are paid off. Officials decided at the time to raise tolls every three years from the bridge’s opening to keep up with those increasing payments. The bridge is paid for almost exclusively by tolls.
Those projections, however, haven’t borne out, primarily because of the weak economy. Traffic and revenue have remained flat. For instance, nearly 14.1 million vehicles crossed the bridge during the 12 months ending June 30, according to numbers from the state Department of Transportation that are still being finalized. That’s 1.6 million fewer vehicles than were projected to cross just two years ago, and just 3,500 more vehicles that crossed during the 2011 fiscal year.
The bridge earned $44.1 million in toll revenue during the 2012 fiscal year, just $54,000 more than the prior 12-month period. The toll hikes are projected to boost revenues to $61 million during the current fiscal year.
Most of the bridge’s debt can’t be refinanced due to restrictions on the bonds. In September, state financial officers did refinance one of the two series of bonds that are eligible, saving $5.8 million over the life of that debt.
There has been less traffic crossing the bridge since the toll hikes took effect, but the drop-off hasn’t been as significant as state officials feared. They reported a 1.75 percent reduction in the average number of toll collection each day in July and August compared with that period in 2011.
In 2010, on the advice of the state treasurer, the transportation commission required that 12.5 percent of the bridge’s annual costs be set aside in reserve to cover shortfalls and legitimate cost increases, equaling $7 million in the current fiscal year. It’s an unpopular policy for peninsula residents who say the money should be used to keep tolls low instead of being held in a reserve for an emergency that may never materialize.
The committee will continue its discussion at the second of its four scheduled meetings Dec. 11.