Math is unforgiving. Just ask Tacoma Narrows Bridge commuters, who likely will face yet another toll increase to cross the eastbound portion of the span.
Not that the toll hike should be a surprise. Even before last year’s price increase went into effect in July, it was publicly stated by members of the State Transportation Commission that tolls would go up again this year.
That doesn’t make the looming toll increase any easier to accept as the toll-setting process continues, although the financial reality that’s driving the hike is pretty straight-forward.
In a nutshell, it’s always been the plan for the state to pay off the bridge under a scenario in which tolls would start low and gradually increase over time to a maximum of $6.
The monkey wrench is the fact that bridge traffic hasn’t increased as projected — largely due to the struggling economy — meaning tolls will have to climb higher to keep up with the escalating debt payments on the span’s construction.
Less money coming in than expected, plus increasing payments, equals more expensive costs for users of the Narrows Bridge.
Another factor that’s not helping any, at least in terms of the cold, hard numbers: the Transportation Commission’s decision not to raise tolls in 2010.
Although the public generally approved of the commission’s decision to spend its money instead of raising tolls, owing to the financial hardship it would bring to area residents and drivers, it probably wasn’t the best option in terms of the bridge’s financial bottom line.
The magnitude of the problem becomes clear when one takes into account that annual debt payments on the bridge’s construction have increased threefold since 2008.
In fact, the state had to dip below its sufficient minimum fund balance — an emergency financial cushion, of sorts — for the first time early last year to pay bridge expenses.
There is a sliver of hope when it comes to the prospect of avoiding a toll hike, or at least implementing a smaller toll increase.
Newly appointed state Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, last week introduced Senate Bill 5592, which, among other things, would cap the amount the state would have to keep in reserves for the bridge’s costs at 6 percent. That’s less than half of the current 12.5 percent.
Slashing the state’s monthly contingency for the bridge’s expenses could — at least, in theory — be enough to forgo raising the toll.
SB 5592 also would require the state Department of Transportation to reduce management costs billed to the fund balance.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, is the prime sponsor of House Bills 1050 and 1051, which would allow naming rights for public facilities and transportation infrastructure, respectively.
Angel has long voiced support for naming rights to the Narrows Bridge to provide some toll relief for commuters of the span.
The general consensus, unfortunately, seems to be that selling naming rights to the bridge wouldn’t put much of a dent in what the state owes annually in terms of debt payments.
We think our legislators’ hearts are in the right place, and we very much appreciate their efforts, but at least as far as we can see now, there is no way of getting out of the way of the perfect storm of rising debt payments and a sluggish economy that means flat bridge traffic and lower revenue.
We hate to say it, but we think Tacoma Narrows Bridge commuters better get used to the ugly reality of toll increases.
The Citizen Advisory Committee and the state Transportation Commission are once again looking at the possibility of raising tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to meet required bond payments. Is there another solution? Have you altered your travel plans based on the toll? Submit a letter to the editor up to 250 words to firstname.lastname@example.org. It must include your full name and hometown to be considered for print.