Toll hike of 50 cents in consecutive years is best case for Tacoma Narrows Bridge users

Tacoma Narrows Bridge drivers could see tolls increase 50 cents this summer, followed by a second 50-cent increase in 2016.

That was the best-case scenario presented by state Transportation Department officials to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee Monday night at a meeting in Gig Harbor.

It would double the last two-year toll increase, which was 25 cents in 2013 and 25 cents in 2014.

The reason for the precipitous increase in tolls is the need to make debt payments on the 8-year-old eastbound bridge. The state is set to pay $54 million in debt in fiscal year 2015, with payments rising to $62 million in 2016 and $70 million in 2017.

“Debt service payments are what drives this whole thing,” said Rob Fellows, state transportation toll planning and policy manager.

Because the state backloaded the debt when it financed the bridge, payments will continue to rise until final payoff in 2030.

The 50-cent-increase-per-year scenario assumes bridge traffic will increase by 2 percent in both 2015 and 2016.

Two other toll-increase alternatives presented Monday were higher, based on the possibility that traffic would not increase:

Bridge traffic was 2 percent above state projections for fiscal year 2014 for the first time in recent years, according to state data from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014.

Officials believe that trend will continue as the economy rebounds.

But state Transportation Commission members worry whether it’s wise to use the most optimistic scenario, said commission member Dan O’Neal.

“One of the things that bothers me a little bit about this data here is we’re assuming traffic increases,” he said.

Advisory committee members did not discuss which alternative they preferred Monday, but the committee has a history of recommending the smallest increase possible.

Toll increases are the only way to meet the rising debt payments unless there’s a significant rise in bridge traffic or legislators agree to refinance the debt or subsidize it with other revenue.

Newly appointed advisory committee member and longtime bridge critic Randy Boss suggested no increase in tolls; he said that they wouldn’t need to go up if the state wasn’t keeping a reserve fund balance, which he contends was established illegally.

Boss’ proposal failed to gain support.

The citizen advisory committee will discuss its final toll recommendation at its Feb. 18 meeting. The meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Gig Harbor Civic Center, 3510 Grandview St.

The state Transportation Commission is expected to set the toll rate in May. The increase would go into effect July 1.

After being kept low for the first few years, bridge tolls have increased every summer since July 2012. They now sit at $4.50 for Good to Go transponder users, $5.50 for tollbooth payers and $6.50 for pay-by-mail.