The Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee made its toll recommendation Wednesday night for a 50-cent increase this summer and another 50-cent hike in 2016.
The state Transportation Commission will ultimately decide how much tolls will go up, but it has a history of following the committee’s recommendation.
Despite approving the increase in a 5-to-1 vote, some committee members made it clear they weren’t happy about it.
“I’m looking for equity for this community as compared to the rest of the state,” said member Michael Murphy. “I just feel like the burden on this community is not right.”
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This sentiment was echoed by a handful of people who spoke at the meeting held in Gig Harbor.
Gig Harbor resident Jeff Tjernagel proposed making toll collections similar to that of the State route 520 bridge, where tolls rise during peak commute hours and go down at other times.
People crossing the bridge at non-peak times should be charged less, he said, noting seniors on fixed incomes and young families will be forced to move away from the peninsula if tolls keep increasing.
Under the state’s debt repayment plan, toll increases are the only way to meet rising payments on the 8-year-old bridge unless there’s a significant increase in bridge traffic or legislators agree to subsidize it with other revenue.
The state has already refinanced what few bonds it could. That saved $9 million — a drop in the bucket compared to what’s owed.
The state is set to pay $54 million in debt in fiscal year 2015, with payments rising to $62 million in 2016 and to $70 million in 2017. Because the state backloaded the debt when it financed the bridge, payments will continue to rise until final payoff in 2030.
The committee’s toll recommendation would cover the debt over the next two years on the eastbound bridge while also narrowly maintaining a sufficient minimum fund balance.
That minimum balance was established to cover revenue losses if access were ever restricted because a disaster or other event damaged roads leading to the bridge. (Damage to the bridge itself would be covered by insurance.)
Some on the committee want to see the fund eliminated, while others want the minimum balance reduced to help keep future toll increases as low as possible.
The 50-cent-increase-per-year scenario assumes bridge traffic will increase by 2 percent in both 2015 and 2016.
The committee opted not to follow the Transportation Commission’s request to adopt toll increases of at least $1.25 over the two-year period, which assumed traffic would remain flat or decline.
Bridge traffic was 2 percent above state projections for fiscal year 2014, the first time it has gone over projections in recent years, according to state data from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014.
The committee’s recommendation would double the last two-year toll increase of 25 cents in 2013 and 25 cents in 2014.
After being kept low for the first few years of operation, bridge tolls have increased every summer since July 2012.