Good news comes in two-year increments for toll-weary Tacoma Narrows bridge commuters, and chances for a charmed third year grow stronger by the day.
After four consecutive summers of painful toll hikes, the 2016 Legislature threw in some loose change from gas-tax collections and graciously canceled a 50-cent toll increase that was planned for last July.
Smiles on the Peninsula were bright after that, but they recently shifted into high-beam mode. The state Transportation Commission said it won’t need to activate the annual rate-raising process this year, thanks to robust toll revenues from increasing bridge traffic and other factors.
All signs point toward a reprieve from higher tolls, not just this summer but in 2018 as well. It’s a nice anniversary gift as the eastbound span turns 10 this year.
But Washington lawmakers can and should do more. They have an opportunity to correct an arbitrary accounting maneuver that stuck bridge users with responsibility for an emergency reserve fund.
By passing Senate Bill 5317, the Legislature would make a good-faith gesture to protect the long-term interests of toll-payers. They’re already on the hook for millions in escalating annual debt payments ($70 million in 2017), plus a big bill for deferred sales taxes approaching fast in the rearview mirror.
The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard. A similar effort, House Bill 1582, is sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor. He’s been trying to free toll-payers from the emergency fund for two years.
State officials are well aware of the unique — and uniquely punitive — financing scheme that built the $735 million bridge, an arrangement that placed 100 percent of the burden on bridge users to cover construction debt and ongoing operations.
It’s no surprise that those living and working west of the Narrows would harbor feelings of unfairness. Paying full freight on the bridge while also paying taxes to support transportation projects elsewhere, such as the accursed tunnel excavation in downtown Seattle, doesn’t sit well. Former state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, went so far as to call it unconstitutional.
SB5317 would add a sprinkle of shared statewide obligation. Right now, money from tolls covers what’s known as the “sufficient minimum balance.” The SMB is an emergency account that would pay the bills in the event toll collections are interrupted due to terrorism, earthquake or other calamity on or near the bridge.
The SMB was pegged at 12.5 percent of annual bridge costs, intended to provide 45 days of capital if the bridge ever goes out and insurance hasn’t kicked in. The balance ebbs and flows, but it lines out this year at around $10 million. Anything less would trigger a toll-increase process.
Angel’s legislation would take the SMB off toll-payers’ backs and switch it to statewide gas tax collections. The $10 million unspent balance would be applied to paying down bridge debt and holding down future toll hikes.
It’s only fair, as members of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizens Advisory Committee point out, because the SMB was contrived to benefit all Washingtonians. Former state Treasurer Jim McIntire advised creating it in 2010 to maintain a favorable bond rating, thereby reducing costs of public works projects around the entire state.
There are a half-dozen or so other ideas floating around Olympia this year that could shake things up for Narrows bridge users. One bill would limit drivers to one toll per day, even if they cross multiple times. Another would cut costs by mandating the use of unstaffed, credit-card-only toll booths.
But none is as straightforward and nondisruptive to bridge operations and toll collections as SB5317.
The citizens toll committee supports it. So does the Transportation Commission. The Legislature could spread a little 10th anniversary cheer by supporting it, too.