Politics & Government

Legislative move could cancel Tacoma Narrows bridge toll increase

Tolls are set to rise 50 cents this summer on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but a spending plan that passed the Legislature on Wednesday would provide $2.5 million for debt payments.
Tolls are set to rise 50 cents this summer on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but a spending plan that passed the Legislature on Wednesday would provide $2.5 million for debt payments. Staff file, 2007

A move by state lawmakers might stave off an increase in Tacoma Narrows bridge tolls this summer.

A Gig Harbor legislator hopes it also buys time to study other ways to pay off bridge debt. Think tollbooth operators doubling as Starbucks baristas.

Those are twin effects of a supplemental transportation budget approved Wednesday by the Legislature. The spending plan now goes to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who praised the overall package but has the power to veto pieces of it he doesn’t like.

Money that lawmakers included in the budget would cancel the need for Narrows bridge tolls to increase this summer, said Anne Haley, chairwoman of the state Transportation Commission that sets the rates.

“It’s going to be a benefit for the ratepayers that go across that bridge every day,” said Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor.

Young said the $2.5 million in the budget might even avoid toll increases over multiple years and allows the state to explore other money-saving options — such as collecting tolls at coffee stands.

The budget requires a study of leasing the area around the Narrows bridge tollbooths to “concessionaires,” which Young said could include Starbucks and 7-Eleven.

Young calls it “toll by coffee.”

He said coffee stands or walk-in stores could collect tolls with purchases just as they collect local taxes, saving the state the millions of dollars it pays a contractor now to collect cash tolls at tollbooths.

Users of the electronic Good to Go system pay $5 to cross the eastbound bridge, tollbooth users pay $6 and pay-by-mail users pay $7.

All of those rates are due to go up by 50 cents July 1 as debt from the bridge’s 2007 construction is paid off, but recent increases in traffic counts on the bridge had raised the possibility of a smaller hike.

A bipartisan crew of lawmakers pushed for money to cancel the increase altogether. The group included Young, Sen. Jan Angel and Rep. Michelle Caldier, both R-Port Orchard, and Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place.

Bruce Beckett, chairman of the Narrows bridge citizen-advisory committee, said the legislative move would probably eliminate the need to adopt the committee’s proposal to spare Good to Go and pay-by-mail drivers while hiking the cash rate by $1

“This is the most significant near-term impact for toll payers that the Legislature has taken on in many, many years. Maybe ever,” Beckett said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader

Staff writer Brynn Grimley contributed to this report.

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