The third bridge built over the Tacoma Narrows turned 10 on Saturday without the fanfare that marked its opening, and a region’s eyes remain trained on how it’s doing.
The answer is mixed.
The bridge’s structure remains solid — its life has far outstripped that of its famous predecessor, Galloping Gertie — and commuters fill its lanes every weekday.
But traffic and toll collections have fallen far short of what state officials projected before 2007.
The state Department of Transportation says it remains on track to pay off the bridge’s debts by 2032.
The head of the committee that makes toll recommendations for the bridge, however, said the paucity of bridge traffic could reverberate one day with toll hikes or pleas to the Legislature for more money.
To assess the bridge’s financial state, the News Tribune compared a consultant’s traffic projection for the state Department of Transportation in 2006 with the reported traffic through this March.
It found the bridge will have to see 27 million drivers — nearly two years’ worth of traffic — between April and December 2017 to catch up to early expectations.
“The traffic hasn’t materialized,” said Bruce Beckett, chairman of the bridge’s Citizen Advisory Committee, which is in charge of making toll rate recommendations.
Instead of nearing 17 million vehicles a year as predicted, the bridge has not yet had a 15 million-vehicle year, Beckett noted.
As a result, revenue from tolls is well behind what was originally predicted.
The bridge was projected to be taking in a little more than $100 million a year in tolls by now. It isn’t close. After the last toll increase, in July 2015, revenues for the next year were about $78 million. As of March, the bridge was on pace to bring in about $82 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
The life-of-the-bridge toll collections by the end of March were $537 million. That’s about $225 million short of what the 2006 projection said would be in bridge coffers by the end of this year.
The causes of this shortfall are debatable.
Transportation Department officials point to the unpredicted late-2000s recession that slowed the region’s growth as a key reason traffic was down.
Thus far, the state remains on track to have the tolling wrapped up in 15 years, on schedule, Transportation Department spokeswoman Meredith McNamee said.
However, any deeper revenue shortfalls could mean tolling takes longer, get more expensive or both. Here’s why:
“The state holds a whole lot of essentially zero-coupon bonds to finance the bridge, with a debt repayment schedule that was in some respect predicated on a lot more traffic on the bridge than has actually materialized,” Beckett said.
The tolls will go away when the bridge’s construction accounts are settled. That comprises $691 million in bond debt for construction and $58.87 million in deferred sales tax to the state, Pierce County and Tacoma for labor and materials charges.
The Transportation Department says that at current toll levels, the bond debt remains on schedule to be paid off in 2030, and covering the sales tax will take another two years. If that happens, the tollbooths will disappear as scheduled in 2032.
So far, the bridge has kept pace with the loan-payment schedule despite its tolling shortfalls through financial arrangements that weren’t in the original plans.
Operations and maintenance costs have come in well under projections — those costs ran about $11 million in 2016, where the projection had been $7 million higher. And the Legislature this spring transferred money into the bridge account so tolls wouldn’t rise in the near term.
In the bridge’s coming decade, however, are problems that haven’t been solved yet, Beckett said.
The bond payments are about to ramp up, because the debt payoff was structured to allow revenues to grow over time.
Here’s where things might get either painful — via toll increases — or creative.
The bonds can’t be outright extended, Beckett said, but the Legislature could lend the bridge money to pay them off, then keep charging tolls until the loans are covered.
The Legislature also could pass a law lowering the amount of money the bridge must keep in reserve funding.
“Another option could be the state just paid for it,” Beckett said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The tollpayers ultimately will pick up the operating and debt costs.”
How much traffic flows across the new bridge in its second decade will have a lot to do with that. McNamee left open the possibility that demographics could solve the problem.
“We’re seeing a very large population boom in the area,” she said, “so a lot of things could change.”
In certain quarters, this would be a rare example of an area where a traffic overload would be hailed as a boon.