The Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee has an early holiday gift for bridge users: No toll increases in 2017.
If the state Transportation Commission, which sets the state’s toll rates, accepts the committee’s recommendation, it would mark the second year in a row bridge tolls haven’t risen.
The last time tolls went up was by 50 cents on July 1, 2015. A second 50-cent increase was planned for this past summer, but that was suspended after the Legislature allocated $2.5 million in gas tax revenues to help cover the bridge’s debt service.
No such arrangement has been discussed for 2017.
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Expected bridge traffic is expected to be enough to cover all operating costs and debt service payments in fiscal year 2018, which runs July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018.
“This is the first time in five years there is no recommendation for a rate increase,” said citizen advisory committee chairman Bruce Beckett following a meeting Wednesday night.
State transportation officials presented revenue and traffic highlights to the commission at meeting at Gig Harbor’s city hall.
“We have strong economics in the region,” said Rob Fellows, WSDOT toll policy and planning manager.
“We’ve seen an increase in the amount of photo tolling,” Fellows said. “More people are paying by mail or paying by plate than at the toll booth or with Good to Go.”
That increase has led to slightly higher revenue collections because the pay-by-mail rate is higher than paying at the booth or with a Good to Go transponder.
Good to Go users pay $5 to cross the eastbound span of the bridge, while toll booth users pay $6 and pay by mail users pay $7.
Fiscal year 2016 marked the highest number of recorded vehicles crossing the bridge since it opened in 2007, according to state figures.
A total 14.8 million vehicles used the eastbound span between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.
August saw the highest number of recorded vehicles crossing the bridge to date with 1.37 million, Fellows said.
After a slower than expected recovery from the Great Recession that saw bridge traffic decline or remain flat, the last two years have seen year-over-year increases in traffic.
Bridge traffic was up 2.8 percent in fiscal year 2016 over the previous year and had a 3.1 percent increase in fiscal year 2015 over fiscal year 2014, according to state figures.
“It’s anticipated to keep growing and taper off after a few years. That’s the current forecast,” Fellows told the committee.
Looking to fiscal year 2019, bridge committee members suggested if bridge traffic and toll revenues continue as expected, there may not be a need for a toll increase in the summer of 2018.
Lurking in the not-too-distant future are multimillion dollar projects to replace aging tolling equipment, which state transportation officials say will need to be completed in 2020 and 2021.
Those expenses, coupled with deferred sales tax and debt service payments that continue to rise as the 2030 bond payoff nears, could mean future toll increases are inevitable.
The next time the committee will meet to discuss a potential change to toll rates will be the end of 2017. But that doesn’t mean members are off the hook for a year.
The committee plans to meet in January to review a sufficient minimum fund balance policy that requires the Tacoma Narrows Bridge account to keep 12.5 percent of its operating costs available in case of an emergency.
The fund was established by the Transportation Commission. It allows the state to hold Tacoma Narrows toll revenue to cover 45 days of operating costs if toll collections are disrupted, and it helps keep borrowing rates for the state low.
The sufficient minimum fund account currently has about $10 million.
Narrows bridge committee members in the past have argued the 12.5 percent rate is too high and should be lowered. They believe lowering it would keep bridge tolls from rising, at least in the short term.
They also question whether toll revenue should be used to maintain the balance. Instead they think the state should find other funding to maintain the balance so that toll collections can be directed to future debt obligations.
The Transportation Commission is expected to take up that discussion at its Dec. 14 meeting.