State legislators from the 26th District are working to hold down the need for toll increases in response to concerns on the peninsula side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Tolls are currently $4 for electronic collection, $5 at the toll booths and $6 for pay-by-mail.
Meanwhile, the process to raise tolls, which began in November, continues. The state Transportation Commission, which sets toll rates, appears to favor approving a 25-cent increase on the nearly 6-year-old eastbound span during each of the next two summers.
New toll rates would take effect July 1.
State Sen. Nathaniel Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, have introduced toll-holding legislation in their respective portions of the Legislature.
Schlicher has introduced Senate Bill 5592, which would restrain the bridge’s operating costs, thus getting rid of the need for toll increases. Such legislation would keep tolls down by limiting the amount of toll revenue spent on bridge oversight and administration. The bill would set a 2 percent limit on management costs, with savings going to pay for the bridge. In 2012, those costs amounted to 4 percent of the toll account.
“I’m hoping this will get us over the hurdle for the next two years,” Schlicher said.
The bill has been approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and, as of Monday afternoon, had been sent to the Rules Committee, which will decide if the bill will be placed on the floor calendar for a second reading.
A previous provision of the bill, which would have lowered the reserve fund from 12.5 percent of annual costs to 6 percent, has been pulled, Schlicher said.
In March 2010, the commission adopted a policy that 12.5 percent of annual bridge costs must be kept in reserve to cover revenue shortfalls and cost increases. Schlicher said the state treasurer cited concerns that lowering the reserve fund that much would hurt the state’s long-term bond rating.
“I appreciate the treasurer’s position,” Schlicher said. “There shouldn’t be blowback on investors and Wall Street. We can work toward a reasonable compromise.”
The 12.5 percent figure would slip to 11.3 percent in 2014 and 4.1 percent in 2015 if the tolls aren’t raised, projections show.
Meanwhile, in the House, Angel has introduced legislation to prevent future toll increases on the bridge. House Bill 1965 would retain current toll figures until financing for the span is completely paid off. The bill would allow tolls to be maintained but not increased until all loans and debts are paid.
The measure would cap the annual amount of debt service repayment from the bridge toll account to $60 million, an amount Angel calls a “medium debt level.”
The rest would come as a loan from the state’s motor vehicle excise account, the state’s chief highway fund.
“I tried to make it as simple as possible,” Angel said, likening her proposal to extending a home mortgage. Angel has a background as a former realtor and banker.
The bill received a first reading on Feb. 25 and has been referred to the House Transportation Committee.
Angel’s earlier legislation to sell naming rights to bridges and highways as a way to raise money for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge died. She said she is frustrated at the bridge tolling issue, given the way the bridge was originally financed and what she called unheeded warnings about a bridge financial crisis that is now here.
“This is really an unusual financing deal,” she said of the state backloading the debt and saddling itself with bonds that largely can’t be refinanced.
About a year ago, Angel said she brought the issue of escalating tolls and flat bridge traffic to the attention of the Joint Transportation Committee.
“We need to open up this conversation before we have a crisis,” she said.
Nearly a year later, Angel said, there still isn’t a serious discussion on how to address this issue.
“We have to keep this in front of people to realize we’ve got a problem here,” she said.
Angel also indicated she has some misgivings regarding bridge accounting, saying she told former State Auditor Brian Sonntag she had concerns “I couldn’t put my thumb on.”
She said she it was unclear whether any action was taken on her concerns.
Angel remains frustrated at how slowly the wheels of legislation sometimes turn in the state capital.
“We’re getting calls from the press,” she said of HB 1965, “but not hearing from the grey walls of Olympia.”
Addressing the financing of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and keeping tolls under control is just one part of what needs to be overall reform in state transportation, Angel said.
“We’re being held hostage on this,” she said.
“We don’t have much to say on either bill, but here is what little I can offer: 5592 does not pertain to the commission and is a policy call the Legislature must make as to how they want to handle WSDOT’s operational costs,” State Transportation Executive Director Reema Griffith wrote in an email. “On 1965, this bill does not relate directly to the commission and is a funding policy matter for the Legislature to decide upon.
“I will note though that if both bills were to pass, neither would remove the need for a small rate increase in July.”
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_brett.