Politics & Government

Gas-tax money needed to avoid Tacoma Narrows bridge toll hike come July, analyst says

The Washington state Legislature needs to provide $14.9 million over the next two years to avoid a toll-rate increase July 1 on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a high-ranking official told the State Transportation Commission on Wednesday.

If lawmakers don’t do so, the commission would start a rate-setting process to determine how much tolls would climb, said Carl See, a senior financial analyst.

The Legislature is expected to approve the $14.9 million in the upcoming two-year transportation budget, said Rep. Jake Fey, the Tacoma Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. The funds would come from state gas taxes or other sources, Fey added.

The bridge’s toll on a two-axle vehicle is $5 for those who use an electronic Good to Go pass, $6 if motorists pay in cash and $7 if people pay by mail.

For trucks with five axles, the toll is $12.50 for the electronic pass, $15 for cash and $17.50 to pay by mail.

The current toll rates have been in effect since July 1, 2015. Previously, there were repeated toll increases, doubling the amount for drivers paying cash at a toll booth and tripling the price for those using Good to Go electronic passes.

The eastbound bridge, which opened in 2007 and carries state Route 16 from Gig Harbor to Tacoma, was built with the expectation that tolls would supply all of its funding. But lower than anticipated traffic combined with escalating payments to repay the bonds which were sold to build the span have prompted the state to tap taxpayers’ dollars to avoid steep toll increases.

Fey was the lead sponsor last year of a bill which became law that stated the Legislature’s intent to provide up to $85 million in loans until the bridge’s debt and state loans are repaid through 2032. With the exception of a toll rate increase up to 25 cents on July 1, 2021 or later, state officials said toll rates would not increase.

See, the senior financial analyst with the State Transportation Commission, gave a presentation Wednesday to the seven-member commission, whose member are appointed by the governor. The panel sets toll rates on the bridge to meet maintenance, operational and insurance costs and to make principal and interest payments on debt.

The state uses loans to avoid toll-rate increases at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge because there hasn’t been sufficient revenue in the transportation budget for appropriations, said Fey. Appropriations, instead of loans, also would set a precedent for other projects, he added.

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