Tacoma Narrows Bridge users could see no toll increase this summer, if a Gig Harbor lawmaker gets his way.
It hinges on legislators in Olympia changing how the state funds an emergency reserve account — also known as the sufficient minimum balance — meant to cover debt payments on the bridge if tolls can’t be collected for an extended period of time.
Proposed by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, House Bill 2142 would maintain the reserve account as directed by the state Treasurer’s Office, but state taxpayers would be on the hook to fund it instead of only bridge users.
Young’s bill passed out of the House transportation committee 24-1 Thursday and is now before the rules committee. Young, who sits on the rules committee, believes the bill will move quickly to the House floor for a vote.
Toll collections are currently used to maintain the reserve fund’s required 12.5-percent minimum balance. (The balance is calculated as a percentage of annual expenses to operate the eight-year-old eastbound bridge.)
The reserve amounted to just more than $8 million in fiscal year 2015; it would rise to just more than $9 million in fiscal year 2016.
If Young’s bill passes as proposed, it would free up more toll revenue to pay down bridge debt which, in turn, could allow transportation officials to hold the line on toll increases.
Young wants to see the $9 million applied to the gap between projected toll collections and the $62 million debt payment due in fiscal year 2016.
He said there would be no need for a proposed toll increase this summer if that were to happen.
Last week the Tacoma Narrows Bridge advisory committee recommended two 50-cent toll hikes to cover rising debt costs on the bridge, one this July and another in 2016. The state Transportation Commission will set the toll rate in May.
The sufficient minimum balance has been controversial since its creation in 2010.
State Treasurer James McIntire advised the state Transportation Commission, which sets the state’s toll and ferry rates, to create the fund. He said its balance was needed to cover “inevitable uncertainties in traffic, weather, accident and expense projections.”
The commission followed McIntire’s advice and adopted a policy to maintain an unspent balance equal to about 45 days of toll revenue.
The bridge is also covered by insurance, but that would not kick in unless the span were closed for at least 10 days. Insurance would apply to catastrophic events on the bridge but not events on other roadways that could impact bridge travel and ultimately toll collections.
Another reason for the fund’s creation was to help maintain the state’s strong financial standing and keep borrowing costs low, McIntire said in 2010.
But Young says it’s not fair to make Narrows Bridge commuters pay to keep the state’s bond rating high.
“This is the only tolling project that the Treasurer’s Office has done like this,” he said. “We’re stuck with it, so we need to fix it.”
A Treasurer’s Office spokesman said the office is in ongoing conversations with Young to “provide options to what he's trying solve.”
“Instead of using toll revenues to provide that fund balance you could be using, in this case, gas tax revenues,” spokesman Scott Merriman said of the bill. “It’s a short term solution. You still have escalating costs going on with the bridge.”
Some members of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee support Young’s attempt. The committee recommends toll rates to the state commission.
“I’ve been on this tirade for three years,” longtime bridge critic and Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss said.
Boss was recently appointed to the advisory committee and cited his concerns with the sufficient minimum balance at its meetings this year. Others echoed his concerns, although not as vehemently.
“I’m very pleased somebody’s actually brought it to the table and we can have reasonable debate about why we’re carrying the bond rating of the state on our backs,” he said of Young’s bill.
Boss has drafted a lawsuit challenging the legality of the minimum balance, but said he is waiting to see what happens in Olympia before filing it. Young asked Boss to hold off on litigation, saying a court ruling could result in a solution no one likes.