The Washington Transportation Commission formally proposed Tuesday to increase toll rates on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge 25 cents during each of the next two summers.
But that’s not the end of it. State lawmakers still must decide whether to approve the new toll rates or grant authority to the commission to do so to comply with an initiative that voters passed in November.
Two years ago, legislators restored that unilateral power to the Transportation Commission. But on Tuesday, two senators – one a Republican, one a Democrat – said it’s no sure thing that lawmakers will give that authority away again this year.
If the new tolls are authorized, cash, electronic and pay-by-mail toll rates, respectively, would increase to $4.25, $5.25 and $6.25 starting July 1, and $4.50, $5.50 and $6.50 beginning July 1, 2014.
The proposal means tollpayers face the prospect of toll rate increases for three consecutive summers. Last July, electronic tolls went up $1.25, and cash tolls increased $1.
Commissioners favored a two-step increase because it avoids severe hikes on tollpayers all at once and provides more certainty moving forward.
They said they understand toll rate increases are a financial hardship for peninsula commuters, but they also have an obligation to ensure bondholders are repaid and the state’s creditworthiness is preserved.
“This is a difficult financing scheme for the tollpayers,” said commission Chairman Dan O’Neal of Mason County. “I think we all sympathize with the people who cross the bridge a lot.”
Two state senators made clear their opinions to the commission that any legislative action will not be made lightly, if at all, in the wake of voter approval in November of Initiative 1185.
The initiative, sponsored by Tim Eyman, requires the elected Legislature, rather than appointed officials, to have the final say on all fees, including tolls.
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said it would be “very difficult, if not impossible” for lawmakers to approve the new toll rates and that empowering the commission to make the decision would be perceived by the people as a “circumventing of their will.”
Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, said there must be greater accountability before lawmakers would consider restoring toll-setting authority to the commission. He urged the commission to do its part to rein in costs to hold down tolls on the Narrows Bridge.
“The message is clear from the people: They do not want taxes or tolls and other fees to be the default solution to funding issues,” he said.
If lawmakers do nothing, the current toll rates would stand and the state would be forced to dip into the highway fund if toll revenue isn’t enough to pay the bills on the Narrows Bridge, said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director.
The state financed the bridge’s construction with the expectation that traffic growth and scheduled toll rate hikes would collect enough money to operate and maintain the eastbound span and make debt payments, which are set to increase significantly in the coming years. Cash tolls were originally projected to increase $1 every three years to a maximum $6 by 2016.
But the revenue windfall hasn’t arrived as traffic has remained flat, which officials have attributed to the Great Recession and the lingering weak economy. That is forcing officials to deviate from the original financial plan.
Tollpayers faced the prospect of a steeper rate hike this year – a citizens advisory committee studied a 40-cent increase – but the commission allowed some flexibility in how it accounts for an emergency cushion it would draw upon in the event of an extended bridge closure.
State transportation officials have agreed to pay Pierce County District Court a total of nearly $108,000 to reimburse costs that the court incurred during the messy transition to a new tolling contractor in 2011.
The Washington State Department of Transportation earlier agreed to pay $40,882 for the court’s work during the first half of that year. It recently agreed to shell out another $66,854 for its work during the year’s second half, court administrator Chuck Ramey said.
“We think it’s fair,” he said.
Before Dec. 3, 2011, the District Court accepted payments and heard appeals of toll infractions. For every $52 infraction, the court kept $40 while the remaining $12 went to the bridge fund to pay for toll collection and maintenance as well as pay down debt.
Now motorists who cross the bridge without paying up front receive a $6 “photo toll” bill instead of a violation in the mail. Those who still don’t pay receive a civil penalty rather than an infraction. A state administrative judge hears appeals instead of a district court judge.
Photo tolling was initially scheduled to begin in March 2011, shortly after the new contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp., took over tolling operations statewide. The transition was delayed nine months due to a litany of problems ETCC encountered. That led to the dismissal of tens of thousands of backlogged potential violations.
As a result, the court incurred costs to process them but ended up not receiving any payments.
County Executive Pat McCarthy wrote in a letter last year to Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond that Pierce County District Court lost $1.9 million in revenue from the bridge.
But citing a “spirit of compromise,” McCarthy requested that the county need only be paid back $100,000: the court’s estimated cost to process the infractions before they were dismissed.
The agreement gives WSDOT until April 8 to make the remaining payment. It also prevents the court from making future financial claims against WSDOT over the lost revenue.
Although the district court is out of the toll infraction business, it continues to track 98,780 infractions that have gone to collections and date back to the bridge’s July 2007 opening, Ramey said.Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com @TNTchill