State officials are zeroing in on an amount for the next round of toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge: a total of about 50 cents during the next two years.
Alan Weaver, chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee that recommends the toll rate, said Friday that 50 cents would be the maximum increase the committee would endorse.
Last week, the state Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates, received projections that showed an estimated 49-cent increase would meet the bridge’s financial obligations from July 2013 through June 2015 if traffic and revenue forecasts hold true.
Still to be determined is whether the full toll increase would take effect this summer, or be spread across the two-year period, officials said.
The citizen committee will meet 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Gig Harbor Civic Center to continue to discuss its recommendation. It postponed its meeting this month to receive guidance from the state commission. New tolls would take effect July 1.
The state raised tolls paid electronically and at the tollbooths at least $1 last summer. Tolls paid by mail increased 50 cents. Current tolls are $4 for electronic withdrawal, $5 for tollbooth payment and $6 for pay-by-mail.
The financial plan that was used to construct the bridge relied on growing traffic and revenue and escalating tolls to make increasing debt payments. But the revenue and traffic projections haven’t borne out, primary due to the weak economy.
This traffic count has decreased slightly the past two years and is expected to be down again this year. Revenue has remained flat, although it’s expected to increase this year due to last summer’s toll hike.
State law requires the transportation commission to set tolls that provide sufficient revenue to operate, maintain and pay the bridge debt. In 2010, the commission adopted a policy that a revenue fund that equals 12.5 percent of the bridge’s annual expenses be set aside for emergencies; that amounts to $8.2 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The commission clarified this week that the reserve be maintained throughout the year, not just achieved at the end of the fiscal year, according to Noah Crocker, the commission’s senior financial analyst.
The presentation to the commission showed the 49-cent toll increase through June 2014 would raise enough revenue to pay expenses and keep adequate money in reserve during the entire two-year period. But that’s only if current projections bear out, which they have not done in recent years.
The commission could elect to raise tolls higher if it’s uncomfortable with traffic and revenue estimates. It’s also possible officials could spread the toll increase across two years and meet before the start of the second year to determine if an adjustment is needed.
Both the citizen committee and the transportation commission are interested in spreading a toll increase across two years. It would provide motorists more advance notice and cut expenses incurred to set rates, Weaver said.