Politics & Government

Lawmakers restricted toll hikes on the Narrows Bridge. But their plan keeps tolls around longer.

Paying off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

A series of loans from the state will freeze bridge tolls until 2021. Officials say the loan will keep tolls on the bridge for at least an extra year, and are expected to disappear in 2032.
Up Next
A series of loans from the state will freeze bridge tolls until 2021. Officials say the loan will keep tolls on the bridge for at least an extra year, and are expected to disappear in 2032.

For years, tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge have pushed skyward to pay for the bridge’s construction. Recently, officials have threatened to spike those fees even higher to keep up with escalating bills in the bridge’s payment schedule.

But rest assured, drivers. Hefty toll hikes are likely a thing of the past.

An $85-million loan plan approved by the Legislature this year restricts toll increases on the bridge to a maximum of 25 cents over current levels until the tolls disappear in more than a decade — when the $775 million in debt and taxes from the eastbound bridge completed in 2007 is fully paid off.

Without House Bill 2990, tolls could have gone up by at least a dollar next July, according to Carl See, financial analyst for the state’s Transportation Commission.

Not all is rosy, however. See told the News Tribune the commission’s projections show drivers will be tolled crossing the eastbound span until at least 2032 — one year longer than before HB 2990 — in order to pay off the loans.

That loan and resulting toll extension have drawn criticism. Some lawmakers argue drivers in Pierce County should have gotten direct cash from the state and no toll increase at all.

Supporters say it’s a solid middle ground.

“I thought it was a reasonable trade to get to keep the heavy hits on tolls from happening,” said Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat.

Fey and Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, were the main architects of HB 2990, which sailed through the House and Senate with near-unanimous support. It was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last week.

With the $85 million in loans secured, Fey’s bill is expected to freeze tolls until July of 2021. After that, the new law says tolls can rise only 25 cents. Good to Go customers with two-axle vehicles currently pay $5 to cross the eastbound bridge. Cash users are charged $6 and it costs $7 to pay by mail.

Traffic flows over The Tacoma Narrows Bridges on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

Fey’s tolling changes were sparked by the unusual debt plan of the Narrows Bridge.

It’s structured so that more construction debt is due to be paid off through tolls in later years. In earlier years the payments were cheaper, which kept tolls low.

That rising cost, which officials call debt escalation, has been a driving force behind rising tolls. The state also fell behind on toll collections thanks in part to projections that greatly overestimated the number of drivers crossing the bridge in earlier years. Officials largely blame the Great Recession.

In recent years, lawmakers have tried to keep tolls in control with the help of short-term tweaks and unexpected cost savings.

Still, without the new financing plan, the bridge would have a shortfall of about $120 million to meet its debt and tax obligations while keeping the toll steady, See said.

Lawmakers entered the 2018 legislative session determined to make up that cost in a way that limited or stopped toll increases. How to do so brought heated debate.

Rep. Christine Kilduff, a University Place Democrat who opposed Fey’s bill, said she believes the state should have chipped in roughly $125 million to make up for the escalating debt scheme.

Kilduff said the state has directly paid for big slices of other projects — such as the Highway 520 bridge project in Seattle — and should do the same for the Narrows Bridge.

Toll payers are currently on the hook for 98.6 percent of the cost of the new Narrows Bridge. By contrast, tolling is expected to generate only about 72 percent of the cost for the Highway 520 bridge, pontoons and landings.

Both projects received money from fuel taxes for improvements to the surrounding roads.

Kilduff noted that a bipartisan work group that studied the bridge’s finances last year recommended the Legislature cut a check for $125 million to stop any toll increases and prevent drivers from having to pay back a loan.

“I don’t believe it was unrealistic to expect the state to pitch in for this and address the fundamental inequity in how this deal was put together,” Kilduff said.

Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, also hoped to find a solution to avoid the loan plan. She called the $125 million request a “big ask” but said lawmakers on the task force had a backup plan. They could request $17 million from the state now and return in later years to ask for the rest.

In 2018, lawmakers had just a short 60-day session reserved for tweaks to the larger two-year budget approved the year before. With a full two-year budget up for discussion in 2019, a bigger contribution was more plausible, Caldier said.

“Now people are going to be paying the tolls for an additional year,” she said. “At least.”

Caldier said now that lawmakers have approved the loan plan, coming back to ask for direct payments from the state will be even harder. She said she still plans to try.

“We had a bad deal to begin with, and now we’re just dragging the bad deal on,” she said.

Drivers stop to pay the toll to cross the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

Young and Fey maintain other priorities in the transportation budget meant avoiding a loan wasn’t feasible. Fey is the vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Absent that $125 million, Young said their plan was better than the status quo of rising tolls, despite the tolling extension.

He said people can balance their budgets easier in the short term without spikes in tolls. Keeping tolls down also could encourage more drivers to cross and increase bridge revenue, Young said.

Young also said he plans to look at other ways to lower toll bills in the future or prevent the 25-cent increase. He argued the new financing plan gives him wiggle room to do so.

“This bill has effectively stopped the tolls from going up and bought us time to find more creative solutions to come in and start lowering those tolls,” Young said.

While the plan has its skeptics, Young said lawmakers managed to avoid other alternatives that would have kept tolls on the Narrows Bridge for longer or led to greater toll increases.

One earlier proposal by a pair of Republican senators would have offered the bridge a smaller $75 million loan. That measure also would have kept tollbooths on the bridge indefinitely to pay ongoing maintenance and operations costs.

Young said the state should be on hook for that money going forward since essentially all of the new portion of the Narrows Bridge will be paid for by tollpayers. The older westbound portion of the bridge opened in 1950 to replace the first bridge, known as Galloping Gertie, which collapsed in a windstorm in 1940.

Caldier eventually voted for Fey and Young’s bill, saying in a February House floor speech the plan was “better than nothing.”

Fey acknowledged some weren’t happy in the end, but he said his plan was sensible. He compared it to refinancing a home.

“You trade off length of how long you’re going to have the mortgage for a lower mortgage payment,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein