Narrows Bridge tolls rise next week, and that won’t be end of it

Traffic across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge over the last year was slightly higher than the state Department of Transportation predicted. But bridge commuters looking for a reprieve in toll increases shouldn’t get their hopes up.

The bridge toll will climb next week by 25 cents per trip across the eastbound span, and it will continue to climb in future years as debt payments come due.

“We will sit down with the Citizen Advisory Committee and the Transportation Commission late this year and going into January and February of 2015 with anticipation that July 1, 2015, there may need to be another adjustment,” said Craig Stone, assistant secretary of the state toll division.

For the past year, the state essentially broke even on the bridge despite toll revenue still running below expectations. State tolling officials say revenue would be higher if not for more drivers using the toll booths instead of the pay-by-mail option that generates an extra $1 per trip. The majority of toll revenue still comes from vehicles with electronic transponders, who pay the least to cross.

Stone couldn’t explain the change in behavior with more people paying cash up front at the toll booths. But he said if the trend continues, it will shape future revenue forecasts.

On paper, bridge toll revenue fell short of projections by nearly $1 million, but it’s within 2 percent of estimates. That’s a welcome change for transportation leaders who previously dealt with larger discrepancies that spurred talk of even larger toll hikes.

“It’s actually getting a little bit boring, being stable, being efficient in operations,” Stone said. “In effect, being boring is what we’re striving for.”

After expenses, the state actually saw a slight gain this year -- about $200,000. That’s because it spent less mailing the pay-by-mail bills and money was moved to a different account to pursue civil action against drivers that don’t pay, said Ed Shumpert, state director of toll finance and program management.

The increase is nominal, officials say, and doesn’t change the fact that tolls will have to rise to keep pace with increasing debt payments. The debt was backloaded, resulting in annual payments that will climb to $61 million in 2016 and $70 million in 2017.

The state is using toll revenues to repay the money it borrowed to build the eastbound span, which opened in July 2007. The first big increase came last year when payments went from $45.7 million in fiscal year 2013 and to nearly $54.6 million this year.

The state’s plan to repay the debt was to gradually increase tolls as the number of vehicles increased along with growth on the Peninsula. But the math grew more complicated when the amount of traffic remained flat for years.

Stone said he can almost guarantee more toll increases are coming, but couldn’t say by how much.

State legislators, including Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor and Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, have proposed legislation to lessen the financial burden on bridge users, but haven’t had success.

Annual traffic is expected to reach nearly 14 million paid trips for the fiscal year that ends this month. That’s still lower than state officials would like to see, and the numbers have been up and down in recent years, but Stone said the slight bump is encouraging. He attributed it to the improving economy.

“The economy and gas prices did have an effect on travel on the bridge,” Stone said. “We’re starting to see a reflection that the economy having slow growth affects traffic, and traffic affects revenue.”