The state commission that sets toll rates appeared Wednesday to favor approving a 25-cent increase on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge over each of the next two summers.
A consensus seemed to form on the Washington State Transportation Commission a day after the bridges citizen advisory committee recommended a 25-cent increase this summer. Advisory committee chairman Alan Weaver of Gig Harbor said his group doesnt oppose another 25-cent increase next summer as long as members can review the books again when the time comes.
Transportation Commission members determined a two-stage increase makes sense because it avoids severe hikes on tollpayers all at once and provides more certainty moving forward.
A predictable increase is better than a sudden one, Commissioner Phil Parker of Clark County said during a break.
Chairman Dan ONeal of Mason County said the commission has been keeping tolls as low as possible since the bridge opened in 2007, but still must meet expenses and debt payments. Tolls didnt increase at all for the four-year period leading up to last summer.
I think we pay a price for that, ONeal said. I think the price is that as we get further on in this process, the rates have to be higher than they would have been.
The Transportation Commission has seven members appointed by the governor from around Washington; it helps develop statewide transportation policy. The citizens advisory committee has nine members also appointed by the governor; they must be residents of the area served by the bridge, and their role is focused exclusively on bridge tolls.
The commission is scheduled to approve new toll rates next month; they would take effect on July 1. Current Narrows Bridge tolls are $4, $5 and $6, respectively, for Good to Go!, cash and pay by mail.
Tollpayers did get a break Wednesday as the commission sided with another recommendation by the advisory committee: to provide more flexibility on the bridges emergency fund balance.
The commission adopted a policy in 2010, at the urging of the state treasurer, to require the balance of the bridges operating fund be sufficient to provide 45 days of available cash to pay expenses in the event of a lengthy closure of the span.
The balance dipped below the established level last year for the first time, as debt payments continue to climb while the number of vehicles crossing the bridge remained flat. The state originally financed the bridge under the assumption that increasing traffic would cover those increasing debt payments.
To stabilize the emergency cushion, the commission had considered requiring the balance be met each month rather than at the end of the fiscal year, meaning tolls would have to be set higher.
Chris Myers, the advisory committees vice chairman, told commissioners Wednesday that policy would put tollpayers in a difficult position for instance, if a debt payment draws down the reserve balance precipitously for a single month.
Is it reasonable, then, for ratepayers to pay more just to bring (the balance) up that one month? asked Myers of Gig Harbor. We dont believe it is.
The commission compromised by revising the policy so its met on a three-month rolling average; in other words, add the balances at the end of July, August and September, for example, and divide by three.
Projections show an increase totaling 50 cents over the next two summers will provide enough money to pay expenses without dipping into the emergency cushion under current traffic projections.
Officials could revisit the tolls next year if their projections are off. The projections have proven overly optimistic since the bridges opening, because they didnt anticipate the economic recession.
On the bright side, traffic and revenue counts for the first six months of the current budget year show traffic and revenue are above projections. More than 13.6 million vehicles are expected to cross during the 12-month period that ends June 30, and the bridge is estimated to generate $60.6 million in toll revenue.
Myers said the advisory committee opposed a once-every-two-years increase because it wants more say, not less, in how the bridge is managed.
We certainly wouldnt want to be taken out of the loop, he said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390