As lawmakers debate raising the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects, Gig Harbor Rep. Larry Seaquist is asking that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge be included in the discussion. He wants electronic tolls rolled back to $4 and frozen for now.
Seaquist made his proposal after learning there was talk of using part of a proposed gas tax increase to pay for the State Route 520 bridge replacement in Seattle, another state project funded by tolls.
“There is a new plan being discussed that would increase funding to 520, and that only makes the disparity with the Narrows bridge worse,” Seaquist said Wednesday.
Instead of tolls paying for the project like they do in Tacoma, taxpayers across the state would pay for the new 520 bridge. If that happens, the Democrat said it’s only fair that some Narrows Bridge costs also be covered by rising gas tax revenues
“Our tolls cover 100 percent. Now you’re seeing discussion about a cost-sharing model,” he said. “We’re still paying high amounts around the clock. You go over the 520 bridge in the middle of the night and it’s free.”
But the toll cap idea is a tough sell even among Seaquist’s fellow House Democrats. Negotiators for their side said it’s not under discussion as part of the transportation talks they hope lead to a special session, nor are they trying to put new proposals on the table.
House Transportation Committee chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said the proposal could be better addressed in a regular legislative session.
Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he hasn’t seen Seaquist’s proposal and couldn’t speak to its specifics Wednesday.
Discussion regarding the 520 bridge is about how to finish the project, not about tolling, he said. That makes it hard to compare with the eastbound Narrows Bridge, which opened in 2007.
Even so, King said he was “more than glad” to look at the proposal.
Various players in the transportation negotiations are looking at a deal valued at roughly $10 billion and pegging it to a large increase in the state’s gas tax — perhaps more than 10 cents per gallon.
The Legislature dedicated $849 million to build the new span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and paid for it with construction bonds. Tolls go toward repaying the bonded debt.
In 2012, bridge users saw the first toll increase in four years when tolls jumped from $2.75 to $4 for Good to Go users. They went up again last summer: Good to Go users pay $4.25, tollbooth users pay $5.25 and pay-by-mail users pay $6.25.
Tolls are expected to rise another 25 cents in July 2014. Under Seaquist’s proposal that increase wouldn’t happen; instead, tolls for vehicles with electronic transponders would return to $4 and remain at that level for the foreseeable future. A small percentage of the proposed new gas tax revenue would be shifted into a toll stabilization account that would cover the increasing debt payments.
State officials financed the Narrows Bridge project by backloading the debt to keep tolls low when the new span opened. The hope was that by increasing the tolls to a maximum of $6 in 2016, and by factoring in population growth, enough money would be generated to cover the escalating debt payments.
But annual traffic counts show the number of crossings has been flat, and revenue has only increased after toll increases.
If a compromise transportation revenue package deal isn’t reached before January, Seaquist said he plans to introduce legislation during the 2014 session.
Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.
Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467