There weren’t many positive comments that came out of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s hearing Wednesday night on Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls.
Words like “unfair,” “unconstitutional” and “catastrophic” were used to describe a potential 50-cent increase later this year and in 2016. On July 1, the cost of a Good to Go crossing would jump from $4.50 to $5. The following year — starting July 1, 2016 — it would reach $5.50. The potential cost is higher for toll booth and pay-by-mail options.
Wednesday night’s meeting in Gig Harbor was the second of three public input meetings. The commission held a virtual meeting April 15 and will take more input on May 20. At the May meeting, the commission will take final action on the toll increase.
For citizen Jud Morris, who testified on the tolls before the commission, the whole situation is a little like the movie “Groundhog Day.” In that 1993 movie, Bill Murray’s character is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. Morris compared that situation to the annual toll increases.
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However, Morris said Murray’s character learns something new each repeating day. The commission needs to take the same approach with tolls, he said. It’s inevitable that debt is going to continue to rise, but it’s time to learn from the regular toll increases and look elsewhere for revenue.
Former state Rep. Larry Seaquist had harsher words for the commission: “The Narrows Bridge tolls are grossly unfair.”
Seaquist pointed out the burden of placing 100 percent of the cost on tolls. He believes it is unconstitutional because residents of the peninsula area are forced to both cross the bridge with high tolls and pay gas taxes on other projects around the state.
“We are not being treated equally... it is your obligation to say so,” he said.
While in office in 2013, Seaquist proposed a plan that would have rolled back and capped the bridge toll at $4.
He proposed that the bridge should be partially paid for with a higher gas tax. It was at a similar time that lawmakers were considering a higher gas tax to help pay for the 520 bridge in Seattle.
Citizen’s Advisory Committee member Randy Boss called out the gas tax funding for other projects. He said that bridge-goers are being treated unfairly because they pay for their local project while also bankrolling other transportation projects via taxation, such as the consistently troubled Bertha tunnel in Seattle.
“We’re the guinea pig project after 40 years of no tolls in the state,” Boss said. “We got our project done on time and under budget and we’re still being punished.”
Tolls are continually increased due to the debt service on the bridge, said Noah Crocker, senior financial analyst. Crocker presented to the commission before the hearing opened.
The current debt service payment prevents the toll rate from staying static.
“Current toll rates will not produce sufficient revenue to meet our annual expenses,” Crocker said.
In order to shoulder the debt service payment, the Citizens Advisory Committee put forth an increase proposal that will raise the toll by a dollar over the next two years.
Should the commission approve the increase, tolls on July 1 would change to $5 for Good to Go passes, $5.50 for toll booths and $6 for pay by mail.
The following year would see another increase that would be $5.50 for Good to Go passes, $6 for toll booths and $6.50 for pay by mail.
The final public input meeting on the toll increase is set for 6 p.m. May 20 at the Gig Harbor Civic Center, 3510 Grandview St., Gig Harbor.