Commission members gather this week in Gig Harbor to collect public input on bridge tolls. Here’s mine: Our bridge tolls should be going down. Way down. To $1.25. Tolls should top out at $1.50 until the bridge bonds are fully paid.
I ask you to revisit the basic deal that set up tolling on the new bridge. This was to be a first, an experiment. After 40 years as a no-tolls state, could we pay for big highway projects with tolls? Charge the local users and avoid the politics of gas taxes?
The new Narrows Bridge was the test case. Legislators went whole hog, 100 percent. After years of manipulated votes and political deal making, users would pay the total cost of building the bridge and of operating and maintaining it for the 30-year life of the bonds. I recall Transportation Committee leaders promising in more than one flowery speech on the floor of the House and at public meetings here in Gig Harbor that they would be watching the experiment closely, ready to adjust.
Watch and adjust they did. They immediately abandoned the idea. Leaving us stuck with our 100 percent requirement, they set tolls at only one fourth of the next tolling project – replacement of the SR-520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. And until I and others intervened, tolling on the big project after that, the tunnel under Seattle, was to be zero — no tolls.
This week the Legislature may abandon tolling altogether. Arguing only about who gets the money, both parties appear to agree that higher gas taxes should pay for some $15 billion in new work. No more buy-your-own projects.
It is time for you, Commissioners, to revisit the original deal. Declare that both ends of the guinea pig experiment went wrong. The 100-percent rule forces tolls way too high for working families, students and retirees. And in eight years the state’s power players — big business, big labor, and the politicians — have figured out that, for now, gas taxes are better than tolls.
What should our Narrows Bridge toll be?
Tolls pay only a quarter of the $4.65 billion (and counting) 520 rebuild project — and nighttime crossings are free. We need the same deal, Commissioners. Set our tolls at the same rate as the only other tolled bridge.
Can gas taxes afford it? You bet. The 11½ cent gas tax rise before the Legislature now will buy some $15 billion in projects. Redoing our bridge deal would cost maybe 2/100ths of one percent — a tiny adjustment.
So I ask you, Transportation Commissioners, to act. Tell the governor and the Legislature the experiment didn’t work. Peg our tolls at 25 percent of the cost to build, $1.25 this year, not $5. Our tolls would top out next year at $1.50 — a fair-share quarter of the $6 planned in the original repayment schedule.
It is not fair that our tolls should go up when the state has abandoned the 100 percent rule, has walked away from mega-project tolling and is planning to raise our gas taxes so we can help pay for everyone else’s new highways, too. Fairness is an important principle in our state. In our Constitution, all are to be treated alike, the same principle at the heart of our Supreme Court’s McCleary finding that we are not funding our schools uniformly.
I ask that you act now. Don’t leave Narrows Bridge toll payers stuck holding a very expensive bag.